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Gulf States

April 6, 2012

The Gulf is busy showcasing itself as the spearhead of modernization. In his new book, German journalist Rainer Hermann writes that the Gulf states demonstrate what Arabs can accomplish when given the necessary freedom.

Downtown Dubai
Image: picture-alliance/ZB

The United Arab Emirates and the small states on the Persian Gulf have long been disdained by the rest of the Arab world as a cultureless periphery. The other Arabs haughtily looked down on their nouveaux riches cousins on the Arabian Peninsula. Now, however, the seven principalities that united in 1971 to form the United Arab Emirates have entered the modern world with a vengeance, leaving the cultural centers of "old Arabia" far behind them.

In terms of economic weight and political significance, the young city-states of Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Kuwait and Qatar have long since outstripped the one-time power centers Egypt, Syria and Iraq.

The former core regions of the Arab world, while still representing a grand history, cannot exactly boast a dynamic present. It is this contrast between the "old" and the "new" Arabia that provided German journalist Rainer Hermann with the framework for his book about the Gulf States ("The Gulf States - What's Next for the New Arabia?").

This is not one of those quickly turned-out works on the Arab Spring that publishers are busy tossing onto the market. On the contrary: it is thoroughly researched and the result of the many years Hermann has spent working as a correspondent, including reporting from Abu Dhabi for the German daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ) since 2008.

Rainer Hermann
Hermann has focused on political reporting from the Arab world since 2001Image: picture-alliance/dpa

But of course Hermann couldn't simply skip over the Arab uprising completely, which is why his first chapter makes the connection to the Arab protest movements.

Quantum leap in a single generation

While in the traditional core countries of the Arab World people are rising up against stagnation and antiquated structures, the Gulf is busy showcasing itself as the spearhead of modernization. With the exception of Bahrain, the protest movement has practically passed by the Gulf States without a trace. The media there by contrast - such as Al Jazeera, which broadcasts from the small state of Qatar - have become the mouthpiece of the revolution, even though Qatar itself is not under democratic rule.

Knowledgeably and in great detail, Hermann recounts how the Gulf rose from a Bedouin nation to become a hypermodern center of the modern global economy. In a single generation, the inhabitants of the Gulf have taken a quantum leap unrivalled anywhere in the world. A scholar on Islam and an economist, Hermann explains how this success story could come about, bringing together a number of different facets from areas such as urban planning, culture, ecology, society and history.

A Qatari employee of Al Jazeera Arabic language TV news channel passes by the logo of Al Jazeera in Doha, Qatar
Al Jazeera operates under Qatar's political and economic umbrellaImage: AP

The reader learns of the health problems brought by the Gulf Arabs' new wealth, and of the real-estate bubble in Dubai.

Dubaiin particular has proved to be a driving force in the Emirates. For Hermann, that city has become synonymous with what Arabs can accomplish when given the necessary freedom. Often scoffed at as a kind of "Disneyland," the metropolis has in the meantime attained the status of an Arab dreamland, just as America was once the yearned-for destination for so many Europeans in the 19th century.

Success as the result of strategic planning

A symbiosis between capitalism and Islam has taken root here that Hermann marvels at, without however neglecting to tell of its darker sides and contradictions. Unlike other oil-producing countries, such as Libya, the Gulf states have succeeded in investing their revenues from the lucrative petroleum business into the long-term development of their economies and societies.

For the FAZ journalist, Dubai's ascent as a metropolis is the result of strategic planning and foresight on the part of the ruling family. Thanks to targeted investments in logistics, infrastructure, real estate and financial services, the city has developed into an international hub for trade between Europe and Asia.

This can be attributed not least to the pragmatic understanding of Islam that still characterizes the Gulf States today, although outward forms of piety have taken on greater importance. Hermann explains this contradiction by pointing out that Islamic clerics never played a significant role in Bedouin society.

Two women, in traditional burqas, at the Wafi mall in Dubai
Dubai is home to the largest shopping malls in the United Arab EmiratesImage: picture-alliance/dpa

People were often unable to afford them, and they were not highly respected. An important achievement of the Gulf is therefore an open society - something greatly valued by Arabs in other countries. Dubai especially has become a codeword for freedom and the fulfillment of personal dreams, more reminiscent of America than of the Arab World.

The ideal case of globalization

The key feature of Dubai is its ambiguity - its lack of a concrete identity, of local ties, of authenticity. Dubai could be anywhere; the city is the "ideal case of globalization." At the same time, though, it is a prime example of ecological madness, with indoor ski slopes despite an outdoor temperature of forty degrees. In environmental terms, the Emirates live beyond their means in a way unparalleled anywhere in the world.

In 2010, the World Wildlife Fund awarded Abu Dhabi the dubious distinction of having the world's biggest ecological footprint. The "footprint" estimates how much land and ocean area an individual or country needs to sustain the current standard of living in the long term. Abu Dhabi's ecological showpiece project Masdar City doesn't really help much here, because it can hardly compensate for a rate of water and energy wastage known otherwise only in the United States.

Hermann hence describes in detail both the accomplishments and the downsides of the rise of the Gulf States. He cogently arranges the facts and explains the contexts, but generally refrains from commentary. And that is exactly what makes his book so worth reading.

Book cover "Die Golfstaaten"
The Gulf States represent a "new Arabia," Hermann writes in his bookImage: DTV

With the exception of Bahrain, the Arab protest movement has almost entirely passed over the Gulf States up to now. Demonstrators in Oman were arrested, but otherwise little resistance has sprung up. In Qatar there wasn't even a petition against the ruling house of al-Thani, let alone a demonstration. This is due not only to the great prosperity of the region, but also to better government, embracing a policy of modernization from above.

However, neither a true division of powers nor extensive press freedom exists here. In March 2011, political prisoners were taken in the Emirates for the first time. No information is available on what became of them. Nevertheless, in the year of the Arab protests, the center of gravity in the Middle East shifted further toward the Gulf, where in particular the small state of Qatar is now among the foreign policy heavyweights.

Qatar- for Hermann an "al-Thani family show" - assumed a leading role in the mobilization of the community of states against Libya's leader Moammar Gadhafi. In the present expressions of international concern about the conflict in Syria, Qatar however plays a more dubious role. Whether or not the Emir has taken on more than he can handle in Syria remains to be seen. Hermann's book on the Gulf States is required reading for anyone interested in political developments in the Gulf and their background.

"Die Golfstaaten - Wohin geht das neue Arabien?" ("The Gulf States - What's Next for the New Arabia?") was published by DTV Premium in 2011. It has not yet been published in English.

Author: Claudia Mende, Qantara.de
Editors: Lewis Gropp / rm