Khaleeji Consumption Disorder and other postcolonial malaises

There is something profoundly disturbing about the way a few of the more “modern” nationlets of the Gulf seem to frantically write out lavish checks  to prove themselves to their former colonial masters and new geopolitical patrons.  You name it–if it’s a sign of prestige in the eyes of Westerners, they rush out to buy it, it seems. To the extent of the absurdity bribing African athletes to temporarily become their citizens and run for them in the Olympics. I have no doubt that some of these lavish projects have some (if often secondary) legitimate goals, but the sums spent for  what amounts bragging rights is simply staggering.

To a great extent, these vices are the inevitable result of these societies’ uneviable socio-historical circumstances.  It’s well known that an abundance of certain natural resources often have the perverse effect of impoverishing and destablizing developing countries.  From Resource curse – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

The resource curse or paradox of plenty refers to the paradox that countries with an abundance of natural resources tend to have less economic growth than countries without these natural resources. This may happen for many different reasons, including a decline in the
competitiveness of other economic sectors (caused by appreciation of the real exchange rate as resource revenues enter an economy);
volatility of revenues from the natural resource sector, and government mismanagement, or political corruption, provoked by the inflows of easy windfalls from the resource sector.

Living in the Gulf years ago, I was told by a Pakistani teacher who worked in a private elementary school an anecdote that captures the tragedy and dysfunction of the situation.  Her student, who was local and probably 7 years old, dropped a crayon from his desk in the middle of class. To her shock, instead of picking it up he turned expectedly (and innocently) to his teacher, evidently expecting her to pick it up for him.  In the child’s life up to that point, all people of her racial background were servants. What else could he expect, given that his teacher was Pakistani?

The tendency towards elitism and discrimination that accompany the importation of large amounts of labor in to small societies are easy to comprehend, as well, when you consider the mechanics. Think of the Gulf like a person both blessed and cursed to be born with silver spoon in his mouth–he has the world at his feet, but is impaired by poor life skills due to his never having having had to work normally for a living.  In a  lot of ways, he’s a victim of the situation, as well. And the social arrangement has all sorts of dysfunctional affects and complexes.

That doesn’t make such elitism any less disgusting, though. In what I find a new low of superficiality and irresponsible waste of resources, Abu Dhabi, is, like some overcompensating parvenu, wasting half a billion dollars just to be able to boast to the world that it has a “Louvre”. Yes, half a billion, just to get the name of the Louvre on an empty building. (Then they cough up another $750 million to fill it.) From Price of a Good Name? For Louvre: $520 Million – New York Times:

That is the amount that Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates, agreed Tuesday to pay to attach the Louvre’s name to a museum that it hopes to open in 2012. And there is more: in exchange for art loans, special exhibitions and management advice, Abu Dhabi will pay France an additional $747 million.

Controversy over the Louvre Abu Dhabi has been swirling in France for the last three months, with critics charging that the French government is “selling” its museums. But only now have the full details of the nearly $1.3 billion package been disclosed.

As if anyone unwilling to give the new museum a chance because it’s in Abu Dhabi  will be swayed by the official imprimatur. To those who sniff at its location, this will seem no more authentic than it would without the Louvre’s dearly-obtained approval. The treasures that could be obtained with $540m would be more than enough to get art lovers and tourists’ attention.

Now, I have no illusions about the Gulf being any holier than any other part of the Muslim world, but I can’t help but contrast this with the Sunnah. The Prophet (S) tells not to waste natural resources even in a situation of a seeming infinite plenty (“Do not waste water even if performing ablution on the bank of a fast-flowing river.”) and they’re blowing half a billion just to borrow a prestigious brand name for a tourist attraction. Not exactly what I’d call responsible stewardship, or gratitude for God’s bounty as most of the world (including their own laborers) continues to languish in poverty, privation, and insecurity.

[See this site on water management in Islam for intriguing examples of how disciplined the Prophet in his consumption of water, though he put a premium on cleanliness and had the resources of a nation at his disposal. And Sufistication has a thoughtful post on global warming and the environment from the Islamic perspective.]

I want to see the receipts showing a comparable contribution to alleviating world poverty.

If that’s too altruistic to expect–look at how stingy the US is with economic aid–how about at least investing all this money wisely, in something
of guaranteed utility to the citizens of the Gulf, like education and professional training for a citizenry lacking modern job skills? Seems to me that citizens of the Gulf’s rentier states need community colleges far more than Ivy Leagues outposts, not to mention productive jobs where they’re held to normal professional standards. Despite the incredible wealth and privileges the region enjoys, I think you have a  situation mirroring in key respects that which Booker T. Washington faced when he founded the Tuskegee Institute for former slaves during the Reconstruction era. That is, people lacking basic work skills and, more critically, the work ethic of economically productive societies (which I’d define for these purposes not in terms of GDP, but simply whether citizens  work for a living). And, to make the analogy even more painfully apt, the Gulf states even have their own
form of Jim Crow for their hordes of imported laborers that run their societies.  Not an analogy many Khaleejis would appreciate, but one that they’d do well to ponder, I think.

I find the antics of Khaleeji leaders in this department really downright clinical at times.  Perhaps it’s time for the American Psychatric Association’s to incorporate this post-colonial disorder–a neurotic need to be perceived by the West as cutting edge–into its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (aka the DSM). Consider it Khaleeji Consumption Disorder. I realize that status consciousness comes naturally with wealth and status–to provide a rather mundane personal example, though I live in a college town with many people of modest means I was embarrassed I was last week to temporarily have a flapping plastic sheet instead of a window after my right passenger window regulator conked out last week–but
it’s supposed to be accompanied by a concomitant sense of Noblesse oblige.

I’ve heard that Sheikh Hamza has been known to ask attendees of his talks sporting t-shirts with prominent corporate logos, “Are you getting paid for that advertising?” or something along those lines. In a similar vein, I ask whether a person who pays an exorbitant $40 for a plain black t-shirt emblazoned with the logo of Channel proves himself a person of taste, or rather a trite imitator who lacks taste, originality and economic smarts? Seems the latter to me in most cases. The article notes:

In a statement, Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed al Nahyan said the accord reinforced Abu Dhabi’s vision of becoming “a world-class destination bridging global cultures.”

I think the high-flying corporate lingo (“world-class destination”) betrays the real motivations involved. This is the same old crass, small-minded and ultimately self-defeating elitism that has  prevented the peoples of the Gulf from really benefiting from the astounding wealth they’ve been granted by God.

More fundamentally, “bridging cultures”, my tuchas! It would seem prudent to  bridge the yawning gulf between Khaleejis and their hordes of Tamil taxi drivers, Filipina maids and Pakistani construction workers first. (Or are Khaleeji decision-makers perhaps, contra the Quranic guidance provided below, really only interested in getting to know wealthy Western white tourists, finally proving themselves to the colonial masters of old?) Not to mention granting the foreign laborers who are their society’s economic lifeblood the dignities and legal protections enjoyed by even the humblest of workers in Western societies. I’ve seen this ugly side of Khaleeji life up close while working in the region.

All this reminds me of something I came across on a website dedicated to the late Saudi Prince Ahmed (:: ::):

As a man with a lifelong passion for thoroughbred horseracing, the late Prince Ahmed bin Salman gained worldwide attention in May of 2002 when his horse, War Emblem, won the Kentucky Derby. He once said that winning the Kentucky Derby was “one of the main ambitions of my life.

Emphasis added. Now, for the record  I don’t claim to know anything about Prince Ahmed. For all I know, he could have been saint who just loved horses and the thrill of competing. Still, this strikes me as a decidedly underwhelming goal for one’s life, especially while most human beings–Muslim as well as non-Muslim–on the planet continue to live on scraps. I’m reminded of spoiled, care-free rich of The Great Gatsby
and see a certain sad symbolism for the modern Saudi Arabia in this trite ambition.

What a colossal waste of wealth and potential.  What a distraction from what’s important. Prosperity and influence are as much tests from God as poverty and impotence, tests that have frankly been utterly failed utterly by many in the Gulf in my view.

Not that Saudis or other Khaleejis are the only ones to suffer from these failings. How many of us avoid remember what really counts in life and how
many of us spend every waking moment chasing money?  And even if one limits one’s field of vision to material things, how many of us start each day thanking God for our incredibly (and, it must be noted, unearned) good fortune to have been born in such a land of plenty? (And don’t get me going on how many Americans, especially on the Right, today embrace cold–and utterly un-Christian–Malthusian worldviews that rationalize poverty, suffering and inequality in the name of airy notions of “efficiency” or “personal responsibility”.)

Forgetfulness of God’s mercies and the resulting narcissism are universal maladies. As a Muslim, I just find them especially evident, galling,
and hypocritical in the Gulf, with all its “Islamic” pretensions. Some years ago, I read about how Saudi Arabia has a shockingly high rate of congenital disorders resulting from excessive rates of intermarriage, seemingly out of snobbery and clannishness. (We’re talking about Najdi Saudis not even considering Hijazi Saudis, much less other Arabs or, Heaven forfend, South Asians or Africans).  It’s so serious and widespread that according to the article university teachers can sometimes guess the region a student is from by their visible energy level visible–those from particularly insular and elitist areas of the country are visibly more fatigued during class.

To me it seemed a dramatic illustration of what can happen when you consciously disregard God’s moral guidance.

O you men! surely We have created you of a male and a female, and made you tribes and families that you may know each other; surely the most honorable of you with Allah is the one among you most careful (of his duty); surely Allah is Knowing, Aware.
The Quran (Surah al-Hujurat 49:13)

No mention of fancy buildings there. But there are a lot of allusions to honesty, fairness and justice.

I’ll be a lot more impressed with the Gulf’s “progress” when we   don’t have oppressive, utterly un-Islamic conditions for foreign workers like  this

A riot by 700 workers from Bangladesh has thrown new focus on what human rights groups call the slave-like conditions many Asian workers endure across the affluent Persian Gulf, including salaries of just dollars a day or no wages at all.

and  this.

When Sultana Akter, 19, daughter of Mukteruddin of Netrakona, arrived in Ma-Hawa-Maktab, a Saudi Arabia branch office of Akbar Enterprise, a recruiting agency based in Dhaka, she was taken to the house of an Arab named Ahammad on July 27. As soon as she reached the house, her mistress ordered her to wash clothes. When Sultana said she was very tired and hungry after the long travel, the callous mistress started beating her.

Yes, I know that Gulf governments are making efforts to end abuses, but it’s damn late in the game. These problems should never have been possible in the first   place. Foreign laborers–especially women–in the Gulf should have had the basic economic  rights and social protections enjoyed by Gulf nationals all along. These abuses are the inevitable consequence of a system of legally sanctioned exploitation and disenfranchisement. In fact, it’s so bad that to call the plight of foreign laborers in the Gulf “second-class citizenship” is actually euphemistic, as there is no pretense of them having any claim to form of equality.

I want to see the the ameers of the Gulf boasting to the international media not about the latest glitzy prestige projects but of real strides in bringing about equality and justice in their own societies, and for working to put their God-given wealth to a higher purpose than currying  favor with the international BCBG. That would be real leadership and vision.