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Systems of Governance

New Oil Old Lamps

The old Arab adage that “Cairo writes, Beirut publishes and Baghdad reads” is no longer. Instead “the Arab world writes, while Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Sharjah and Doha decide who gets the big bucks”. Thus argues André Naffis-Sahely, as he explores the contemporary narrative playing out in the land of petro-dollared development, where an Arab literary culture is precluded by the wholesale import of the big box brand of art expos and glitteratifests, uniting the Emirates in a desert of mediocrity.


Once upon a time, but not all that long ago, a queen, whose husband had once ruled a small kingdom in the Lower Gulf, summoned her four sons into her chambers and asked them to swear an oath: to never kill one another to get their hands on the throne. The princes, Shakhbut, Khalid, Hazza and Zayed, knew their mother was right. After all, their own father had fallen victim to fratricide and the ensuing power vacuum had lasted for almost 20 years, during which time a succession of brothers and half-brothers had stabbed and shot one another for the right to rule the Emirate, whose borders stretched from the Empty Quarter in the east to the island of Abu Dhabi in the west. Throughout those decades, each successful usurper found his victory both short-lived and bitter-sweet: the state’s coffers were empty, and the once thriving pearling trade had been destroyed in the early 1930s when the Japanese developed the technique of freshwater oyster farming. The brothers consented to their mother’s request.

As the eldest, Shakhbut’s claim was considered the strongest, and for the next 40 years he ruled the Emirate; he balanced the budget and repaid the debts his country had accumulated during the Great Depression. Although he tended to his duties conscientiously, Shakhbut had little interest in the trappings of power. He understood that balance was the basic principle of power in the desert: if a prince abused his authority, his subjects simply abandoned him for another. Thus, one did not simply inherit command of a tribe, one had to earn it, which meant keeping rivalries in check. Although Shakhbut knew how to manage his own people, there was another element to contend with: the British. When Shakhbut was in his 60s, his country was cursed by a miracle: enormous oil deposits were discovered both on and off shore, a discovery that threatened to make him one of the wealthiest men on the planet. To read the rest of this article online subscribe.

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The British strongly encouraged Shakhbut to grant the necessary concessions, but also offered advice on how he should spend this new revenue. Britain’s political agent even took Shakhbut for a flight over Abu Dhabi, which the king had never seen in its entirety, having previously relied on emissaries and governors to rule there in his stead. Although the agent had hoped the journey would change the king’s mind, Shakhbut insisted that his country was beautiful just as it was. After years of trying to persuade him, the English made overtures to Zayed, Shakhbut’s youngest brother, a capable and ambitious administrator who had built a large following in the east of the kingdom, which he held in his brother’s name. In 1956, when Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser had nationalised the Suez Canal, Zayed had suggested to the British political agent that “Britain should do to Cairo what the Russians had done to Budapest”. Taking note of the young prince, and assuming he would prove more pliable than the curmudgeonly Shakhbut, the British gave Zayed the necessary backing for a palace coup, on the understanding that Zayed would then begin using the oil revenues to “modernise” the country. Towards the end of the summer of 1966, Zayed ordered a troop of handpicked soldiers to surround his brother’s fort, and five hours later Shakhbut was put on a flight to London. Months went by before anyone worked up the courage to tell the old queen what had happened.

Two years into Zayed’s rule, Britain announced it would be withdrawing east of Suez. Aided by his former colonial overlords, Zayed then cobbled together an alliance of tribal fiefdoms under his aegis and founded the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in 1971, presiding over it until his death in 2004. By the time he passed away, the Emirate of Abu Dhabi – the political and economic backbone of the new confederacy, mostly due to its possession of the lion’s share of the UAE’s oil deposits – controlled the largest sovereign wealth fund in the world. Thus, by using British power to further his aims, Zayed triumphed over the northern Emirates – chief among them Dubai, Sharjah and Ras al-Khaimah – which had historically wielded far greater influence than their southern cousin, thus ensuring Abu Dhabi’s primacy, a position it retains to this day.

From the late 1960s to the mid-1990s, the entire island of Abu Dhabi was a whirlwind of sand and cement dust. Everywhere the eye turned, one could see the giant portraits of Zayed wearing sunshades and sporting a winning grin. He was the Emirati boom personified: while Shakhbut had fathered only two sons, Zayed had nineteen. He was Abraham on Viagra: a builder, a seer, compassionate, pious and open-minded. He planted trees, created nature reserves, and his record on women’s rights far outstripped that of even his closest rivals in the wider region. He was also known for his diplomatic talents and charitable donations. But perhaps most importantly, he was genuinely popular among his people, which helped him no end in transforming his country from a backwater into an internationally recognised brand, a transition that many of the more conservative elements of Emirati society detested. For almost the entirety of his reign, Zayed focused his efforts chiefly on infrastructure and the creation of a welfare state that would make any Norwegian blush. The end result was a modern country with all the amenities that citizens in first world nations enjoyed. Furthermore, in order to ensure that his people’s cultural and ethnic identity wouldn’t be swallowed by the incoming hordes of guest workers who built the UAE from scratch, Zayed also oversaw the creation of an apartheid society. The cities were mostly populated by foreigners, whom estimates place at up to 85 per cent of the population, while the Emiratis cloistered themselves in posh ghettoes – homogeneous neighbourhoods with spacious villas, satellite dishes and expensive cars.

Curiously enough, “culture” was never a part of Zayed’s agenda. Although reportedly fond of poetry, up until 2004 Abu Dhabi sported only a single public library, a small collection housed in the Cultural Foundation, which was situated in the grounds of the old royal palace, now preserved as the Heritage Foundation. In the city itself, there were perhaps only four or five bookshops, and their stocks were mostly restricted to Mills and Boon romances, science fiction sagas and trashy airport novels (in English-language shops) and Qur’anic texts, schoolbooks and the odd Egyptian novel (in Arabic ones). Yet, as with Florence’s Medicis, the generational handover that occurred in the Al-Nahyan clan in the wake of Zayed’s death brought about a reorientation of goals. Although I doubt they’ve ever read him, Zayed’s sons would probably be quite fond of Machiavelli, who in The Prince advised that “[a] prince ought also to show himself a patron of ability, and to honour the proficient in every art”. The key word there of course is “show”, meaning that appearing to do so is more important than actually doing so.

On that score, the oil-rich sheikhs of the lower Persian Gulf get full marks: ever since Zayed passed away, the new generation of Emirati leaders has spent billions in an attempt to make their federation the new cultural centre of the Middle East. Like the sorcerer in The Arabian Nights’ “Aladdin”, they have used the genie of money to literally transport the Guggenheim and the Louvre to their shores. In practical terms, this has meant changing the face of Abu Dhabi by adding another island, called Saadiyat. Not content with this, they also set up a number of major literary prizes and events; these include the Abu Dhabi Book Fair, the IPAF (or International Prize for Arabic Fiction), the Etisalat Prize for Arabic Children’s Literature, and the Sheikh Zayed Book Award, which dispenses roughly US$2 million in prizes.

An old Arab adage once had it that “Cairo writes, Beirut publishes and Baghdad reads”, but the situation can now be more accurately described as “the Arab world writes, while Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Sharjah and Doha decide who gets the big bucks”. The greatest consequence of this is the elevation of mediocre literature. With the exception of Saud Alsanousi’s The Bamboo Stalk (2013), the IPAF has mostly awarded its prizes to timid historical fictions: Bahaa Taher’s Sunset Oasis (2008), Youssef Ziedan’s Azazeel (2009) and Rabee Jaber’s The Druze of Belgrade (2010), in what is surely a concerted effort to favour mediocre works of fantasy over a more serious, and potentially compromising, sort of literature. Needless to say, each announcement of a new prize unleashes hordes of handsomely paid hacks, who rush to applaud these new Medicis in their attempt to enlighten the masses and bring about a new cultural renaissance, forgetting of course – or arguably wilfully overlooking – the fact that this could instead have a crippling effect on Arabic literature. I, for one, contend that the love affair with historical novels has to do with a simple fact: the majority of historical novels are suffused with a strong nostalgia for “simpler, better times”, feeding the old story that has kept tyrant after tyrant in power since recorded history began: don’t swap the devil you know for the one you don’t. Terrible things might happen.

Writers from the Middle East – from Rabat to Tehran – already find it difficult to escape the grips of censors, and if they do, poor distribution networks mean their books are likely to end up rotting on street corners or in warehouses. If one of their books is a success, then having it translated into other languages becomes an option. Yet, with the possible exception of the French, Western presses publish very little Arabic literature in translation, and when they do, the majority of titles selected conform to the old stereotypes: Allah, the subjugation of women, and sexually frustrated would-be terrorists. Now, the black gold of Gulf literary prizes seems set to add yet another layer of complications: in order to make your book more appealing, you’d better not write about themes the princes dislike, as was the case with the Malayalam novel Goat Days, which was translated into English and published by Penguin India in 2012. The novel’s plot is based on a real-life story of an Indian emigrant going missing in Saudi Arabia, an experience that won’t be unfamiliar to the millions of mistreated workers from the subcontinent who live and work in the Gulf; yet despite the fact that it makes no outrageous statements about either Islam or the region’s political systems, it has been banned in both Saudi Arabia and the UAE and copies of the Arabic translation were pulled from stores. Although hardly scandalous, the censors got it right: by merely talking about such traumatic experiences, the novelist dared to shed light on the dark side of the progress that old King Shakhbut had so presciently foretold and feared: that while the Emiratis bargained their traditions and way of life for a soulless welfare state, they also ensured their country would be overrun by foreigners they did not understand and who in their turn did not understand their hosts.

The sorcerer in “Aladdin” is able to get his hands on the lamp by telling the hero’s wife that he will exchange her old lamp for a new one, which at least on the surface seems like a fair swap – indeed a favourable one – but the rest of the story tells us otherwise. Similarly, while the Middle East has long suffered under the repression of state-backed writers’ unions that always kowtowed to whichever dictator was in charge, these new Gulf Medicis are seemingly offering Arab writers a new lamp: prizes with almost no strings attached. But is there a real difference?

In her fine piece, “Redrawing the map of Arab culture”, Marcia Lynx Qualey charts the phenomenon of the emerging Gulf Literary Capital which, as Emirati pundit Sultan Sooud Al-Qassemi opined, meant that “the capitals of Arab culture were no longer Cairo, Beirut, Damascus, and Baghdad, but Doha, Sharjah, Dubai and Abu Dhabi”. Lynx Qualey continues: “The vocal and liberal Al Qassemi, himself a member of an Emirati ruling family, received a number of withering responses. Some responses were based on reflexive Gulf-bashing, but others attacked the idea that money alone – without artistic freedoms and shared cultural spaces – could shift centers of culture and development. It also raised the ongoing question: What non-cultural motives lurk behind this cultural push?”

The answer to Qualey’s question is simple: it is neither a smokescreen – as the majority of Gulf-bashers are likely to conclude – nor is it a genuine challenge to the status quo, as many Gulf-adulators would instead argue. As often happens, the truth lies somewhat less bombastically in between. Let’s simplify this question further and ask, who possibly benefits from this patronage? Certainly not Western tourists, who mostly go to visit the UAE in order to turn Christmas, as Lawrence Osborne put it, into “the Winter Solstice with Shopping and Antidepressants”. Neither is it geared towards the foreigners who live there, as all they are concerned with is keeping their tenuous foothold in the country, and most expatriates treat their time in the UAE as a money-making mission to help finance their real lives back home (if they happen to have one to go back to, that is); nor towards ordinary Emiratis, who it is argued will benefit from these initiatives (a recent World Bank report showed that the UAE’s knowledge sector had actually shrunk in the late 2000s thanks to “deteriorating standards in local education”).

Therefore, through a process of elimination, we arrive at the obvious conclusion: the true beneficiaries of these programmes are the powers-that-be, who can now project an image as benevolent patrons and tasteful billionaires. Vogue magazine can then send out its reporters to write fluff pieces about literate queens who seem more at home in Parisian salons than they do amongst their own people. They also help to shield the country from the lens of international criticism. After all, you can’t be a real dictator if you invite scholars and artists from all over the world to dine at your table. Somehow, most people who attend these festivals overlook the fact that most of the Gulf sheikhdoms have poorer rankings in the World Press Freedom Index than the African dictatorships they so readily criticise.

Another claim that can be easily refuted is that these efforts are geared toward promoting and encouraging local artists. That is plainly untrue: the little Emirati literature that exists – and there is very little – is at best in its most basic beginnings, and its thematic range is restricted by crippling social taboos and censorship laws. Case in point: the London-based Banipal magazine, which publishes some of the best Arabic writing in translation, barely secured enough material for its 42nd issue, which was devoted to Emirati literature. What the magazine’s editors did print is mostly dirge: sentimental drivel revolving around petty incidents that occur in family settings. It trades in clichés: stern but eventually relenting patriarchs, wise matriarchs with pearls of wisdom that sound like Jesus’s parables. In none of the stories was there even a semblance of concern about the facts that their culture was dying and their country was populated mostly by foreigners, about whom they knew virtually nothing. The literature on display in Banipal’s Emirati issue also points to a fetishisation of the past. This is, in a sense, unsurprising. As Richard Poplak points out in The Sheikh’s Batmobile: In Pursuit of American Pop Culture in the Muslim World (2010): “American popular culture is powered – at least in part – by the ‘mania of longing’. But what had nostalgia come to mean in the Arab world – in the Gulf especially – where progress has occurred so quickly that it has all but annihilated history? Longing, nostalgia’s handmaiden, has always been at the heart of Arabic culture.”

Nostalgia is the key word here. In 1997, Zayed granted an interview to the New York Times, and one of his answers provides an interesting perspective on the instinctive dread of democracy that fills the hearts of his heirs: “Why should we abandon a system that satisfies our people in order to introduce a system that seems to engender dissent and confrontation? Our system of government is based upon religion, and what our people want. Should they seek alternatives, we are ready to listen to them…”

Although this is sheer paternalism, it might actually work if put into practice. The problem is that it never has been: Emirati dissidents are routinely harassed, jailed and put under house arrest; all criticism of the government is censored in the newspapers; all foreigners suspected of “sedition”, such as, for example, demanding humane working hours and the right to be paid as per your contract, are usually deported as soon as possible. Ironically, the old-school tribal paternalism that Zayed seemed so fond of is the very system he helped to destroy by opening the Pandora’s Box of oil wealth regardless of the rabid consequences that his brother knew would ensue. One wonders whether he ever regretted that decision, but we’ll never know.

As for his heirs, Zayed’s sons may appear impervious to criticism and their grip on power thus far remains unchallenged. For the moment, their subjects are happy enough with the way the spoils of black gold are being redistributed. However, all of this is based upon brittle foundations: the UAE, like all other nations in the Middle East, must over the course of the next couple of decades contend with what are seismic – and unavoidable – social pressures: sky-high unemployment, a ridiculously widening gap between the poor and the wealthy, astronomical food prices, lack of affordable (and decent) housing, all exacerbated by a demographic pyramid chiefly composed of the under-30s, the real losers in the worldwide economic changes currently taking place. Some supporters of these new cultural initiatives would argue that because of the Middle East’s cultural, linguistic and religious unity, Doha, Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Sharjah can project soft power across the region, but they are deluded: the only soft power the Gulf is projecting right now is aimed at the West. By giving away hundreds of millions in “endowments” – and persuading leading universities to open branches in the region, as though education now operates along the same lines as a fast-food franchise – the Gulf has effectively purchased the mainstream intelligentsia’s silence.

This strategy also provides a buffer against the post-recession perception of the UAE as a hub of bloated real estate speculation and shopping malls, by adding artistic ventures and sporting competitions to the roster of available leisure activities, achieving the “diversification” that PR companies have long advised the Emirati rulers to put into practice. First the infrastructure, then the airlines and the satellite television channels: the stage is now set for the implementation of a policy that stretches back to the collapse of the Twin Towers. Now that Arabs no longer feel welcome in the West – where the tide of xenophobia has infected the public discourse – the Gulf can provide a safe haven for the Middle Eastern middle classes to earn, play and live, in a halfway house compromise between Western consumerism and Eastern traditionalism, far away from the rabble tearing up the streets in Cairo, Tunis, Tripoli and Damascus.

Of course these policies could also be read as an attempt to counteract the image of the “Evil Muslim” – a well-established trope in the West’s perception of the “Oriental Other” – and replace it with that of the benign patron. But as long as Saudi Arabia, the real king-maker in the Gulf, continues to sponsor reactionary political movements across the region and provide a haven for the world’s despots (where the likes of Tunisia’s Zine El Abidine Ben Ali seek exile), then whatever initiatives are launched will carry the carrion-like smell of suspicion. The only real “unity” on display in the region is the tendency of these Gulf dynasties – like their European counterparts in the 18th and 19th centuries – to prop each other up when the masses get too excited, as happened in the case of Bahrain, where a popular uprising was quelled by Saudi and Emirati troops. Not that this was anything new: as Perry Anderson put it, thanks to their longstanding (and largely unquestioning) alliance with Britain and the US, “the petty sheikhs of the Gulf and Oman … have had scarcely more need to go through the motions of listening to their subjects than the Wahhabite helpmeets of Washington next door”.

In order to truly foster a literary and artistic renaissance, the Emirati sheikhs would have to do things they are not even remotely prepared to contemplate: abrogate the ridiculous censorship laws, which make it illegal to “mock” the reputation of the UAE, a charge that could be levelled at anyone indiscriminately in the same manner that anyone who criticises Israel is immediately branded an anti-Semite even if they are Jews; ensure that the UAE’s citizens – and guests – are granted habeas corpus; ensure that medieval employment practices are finally brought to an end; establish an immigration system whereby families who have lived and worked in the country for generations – some of whom are even stateless – can at least secure the right to remain; and allow both Emiratis and foreigners an active say in how the country is governed, so that a true society – and not a patchwork of ghettoes – can emerge, and then voice itself through the medium of art.

Optimists should pay close attention to the knee-jerk reaction of the Emirati princes to the Arab Spring: instead of opening up to reforms, Mohamed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, commissioned Erik Prince, formerly of Blackwater, to establish a private force of mercenaries that could be drawn on in the event of a popular uprising. Someone might wish to remind the Emirati sheikhs that whenever rulers resort to mercenaries, their end is usually in sight. [/ppw]


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