Moments of Ibrahim
On our trip through the Middle East with the Ibrahim program, we travelled to five different countries. We met with policymakers, politicians, activists, entrepreneurs, and a whole host of characters, learning about conflict resolution and inter-faith dialogue. Below are moments that struck me in each country we visited, and I have expanded on them and the lessons they taught.
Foreigners often refer to Oman as the “hidden gem of the Middle East.” And in a lot of ways, it is: the beauty of its ocean sides and mountain ranges like Jebel al-Akhdar can’t be found anywhere else in the world, and their people are kind and friendly. But like anywhere, Oman is more than the nicknames bestowed upon it by ex-pats. The country has been able to stay out of the trouble that plagues much of the rest of the Middle East, and it doesn’t face the criticism that its neighbours do in terms of human rights. It relies on oil as a major source of revenue, and that makes it possible for the ruling powers in Oman to provide their populace with jobs, houses, cars, and a variety of subsidies for daily life. That’s what is really interesting about Oman—its ruling powers. Oman is ruled by a “benevolent monarchy” – a term developed to describe countries like Oman that have a single ruler but that still manage to provide a country free to major human rights violations and severe development issues. But how long can a cycle like that continue? How many iterations of this pattern can countries go through before they’re given a leader that doesn’t have the best interests of his people in mind?
Sultan Qaboos bin Said al Said is that ruler in Oman. Much loved by virtually all of his citizens, Qaboos has been in power since 1970. By providing a stable (if not sustainable) economic environment for Oman, he’s made the country very wealthy and very happy. But Qaboos is sick, and he lacks heirs – that some say is the result of his homosexuality. Regardless of the sultan’s sexual preferences, his mortality raises questions about the future of the country. Who will succeed him? Without an heir, it will most likely end up being multiple rulers, perhaps cousins or nephews of Qaboos. But many scholars and experts we met with seem to agree that there is no one person who could carry the love and respect of the country as Sultan Qaboos does now. With the knowledge that oil revenue will not last forever, this forces Oman to consider what will happen after the Sultan passes. I believe a smooth transition is possible, but that in order to maintain the economic stability and well-being of its citizens, Oman needs to focus on what is, in my opinion, the more important of the two questions. There has to be an effort to make an economic shift from oil to other forms of revenue, whether that be tourism or alternative energy sources. With Yemen and Saudi Arabia right next door, it is imperative that Omanis try to preemptively create a sustainable political foundation post-Qaboos—or we may see a political breakdown there as well. It won’t be on the same level as that of other countries, but it will no longer be the “hidden gem of the Middle East.”
United Arab Emirates
On the flight into Dubai, I was able to have a conversation with a Dutch-English woman who was returning to the city after a business trip. She had lived there for two years, she said, but she was only planning on staying another year. She loved it, but it “wasn’t real life.” Throughout our trip, I would hear the same sentiments repeated over and over, always by ex-pats who lived and worked in Dubai for short periods of time. The city and Emirate is the most well-known of seven, but the same idea applies to all of them. It’s a center of commerce and trade and creation, where 90% of the populace is foreigners, where those foreigners can come for a few years, make a lot of money and contribute to the economy, and then leave. It’s the dream (for everyone except the migrant workers—also counted in the percentage of foreigners). But this leaves people who only see this side of Dubai feeling like the woman on the plane: like it’s not real life. Is Dubai a city built on money that goes round and round? Where are the “real” Emirates? Do they exist? I maintain that they do—and that although Dubai’s wealth comes from oil and foreign innovations, it has not always been that way and it will not always be that way.
I want to focus on an experience we had at an Orient Research Center conference. ORC is an Emirati foreign policy think-tank that works closely with a partner group, B’huth (literally, “research”). At the day-long conference, I tried my best to talk to the young Emiratis (especially the women) who worked there, including one Lana Abdelhameed, the acting director of international relations at B’huth. From her, I gained a different perspective on the cogs working beneath Dubai and the Emirates. Lana’s passion is empowering her and her younger colleagues to step up and play a role in building the future of Dubai, an act which includes encouraging the use of Arabic as a primary language of business and politics rather than English (for this reason, the conference was conducted almost entirely in Arabic). The Emirates realize that the youth are a valuable resource. In fact, the President (less democratic in practice than it sounds) recently appointed a Minister of Youth—who is a 22 year-old woman. This signifies change and hope for the country. It works well with other efforts of the Emirates to look into the future by creating Masdar City, a top-of-the-line research and educational institute completely focused on developing alternative renewable energies.
It is easy to become discouraged by a first glance at Dubai. With foreigners going in and out, as well as outstanding human rights violations related to migrant workers, and feeling a constant sense of overwhelming materialism and consumerism, it’s understandable to feel like Dubai and the Emirates are “not real life”. But the ex-pats are mostly temporary visitors. I believe those who are making and will make real differences and change in the country are the younger generation, the Emirati millennials. They understand that it is their responsibility to help lead the country, to improve it, to ready it for the future. And they are there to stay and make it happen.
We arrived in Amman the week of Jordan’s independence day, and as we walked down Rainbow Avenue, there was a steady stream of cars passing with their windows down, both Jordanian and Arab Revolution (another important cultural holiday) flags flying from their roofs and windows, blasting Jordanian patriotic music. It was joyous, and beautiful to see the amount of pride that Jordanians had—not only in being Jordanian, but also in being Arab. During one of our first debrief sessions, a colleague brought up that the nationalism seemed overstated and fake, like an artificial identity, because the country’s borders had been drawn by European powers. He commented that his point was further proved because 70% of Jordanians are either Palestinian refugees or of Palestinian descent. I would first argue that if one subscribes to the belief that all nationalities are socially constructed because political borders themselves are socially constructed, then yes, one could agree that Jordanians have an “artificial identity”. But if one said that Jordanian identity is more artificial (i.e. less legitimate) than that of other countries, then I believe there is a more interesting argument and a better question: So what?
I would advance that Jordanian identity goes further back in history than the date their border was created by the French and Britain. The “borders” between cultures have historically been more fluid than they are today. There is a reason that both the Arab Revolt flag and the Jordanian flag are both celebrated on Independence Day, and there is a reason that those two and the Palestinian flag look so similar. When Palestinians living in Jordan are separated from their fellow citizens, regardless of their refugee status, it creates an artificial border between them. Much of that 70% consider themselves both Palestinian and Jordanian, proud of both identities. I’m not saying that borders don’t matter or that they should be done away with and everyone should live in a nation-less cooperative, but that national identity is much more fluid and historically contingent than we believe it to be. If Jordanian identity is artificial, only existing because of colonial borders, then why shouldn’t the Jordanians reclaim national pride and celebrate their land? I would push back against the very understanding of artificiality here—if speakers were blasting with the national anthem but citizens lived under authoritarian rule and were not allowed to express genuine patriotism, only that produced by the state, then I would take issue and deem that “artificial.” But the national and cultural pride of Jordanians (and Palestinians!) goes deeper than what was set for them by another power.
The identity is real because there is cultural history and background. There is a connection to the land. The borders are created, but the French did not transplant the entire population to Siberia and force them to claim Siberian identity. It takes an extreme amount of precociousness and privilege to spend 4 days in a country and then deem their very identity “artificial”. In fact, it belies a total misunderstanding of the nuance of identity and national borders over all. Jordan will continue to celebrate their nation, whether it is Arab or Jordanian or Palestinian, or all of them, both genuinely and full-heartedly.
Zoe Brouns is a member of the 2016 Ibrahim cohort. Read more about her experience on her blog: Jamil Jedan: A Trip Through the Middle East.