Knowing the Gulf

Victor Mallet

It is the great misfortune of the West that its way of life is almost universally envied without being universally available or completely understood. The phenomenon has long been painfully evident in Africa, but it has never been more obvious or incongruous than in the Gulf today.

Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in August and the arrival of 200,000 US troops and hundreds of journalists in Saudi Arabia have exposed to public view the difficulties faced by conservative and publicly religious regimes whose citizens are tempted by everything from sex to alcohol to Western music and visions of democracy.

‘Hypocrisy’ is not a big enough word to describe the cultural confusion wrought by three decades of oil money and economic development in the traditional sheikhdoms of the Arabian peninsula. Saudi Arabia is a country where alcohol is banned and where the religious police have been known to enter shops and smash glasses which look as if they could be used for wine. It is also a country where the rich drink magnums of black-market French brandy in the safety of their homes, the poor cross the causeway to get drunk on the island of Bahrain, and foreigners in their isolated compounds sip computer-cleaning fluid or the home-made sugar alcohol called Siddiqi (‘my friend’, or Sid for short). Women are forbidden to drive cars, are hardly allowed to work, and are clothed and veiled in black when they leave the house; adulterers are sometimes stoned to death in public. There are no cinemas and the nearest thing to pornography is the sight of Russian synchronised swimmers in the pool at the Intercontinental Hotel in neighbouring Abu Dhabi. But many of the men think nothing of paying for sex in London or Bangkok.

Saudi soldiers guarding the US Embassy in Riyadh listen to the sound of disco music from the Wednesday night parties and ask with a mixture of horror and envy if it is true that people are dancing and drinking whisky by the pool. A trainee Saudi aircraft engineer in Dhahran, hitchhiking into town from the Airport, says he wants to go to London because he has heard that you can just go up to any woman in the street – not only a prostitute – and ask her to have sex with you: he finds it difficult to grasp the idea that it would be wiser to get to know her first.

Mutual cultural incomprehension is the Gulf’s stock-in-trade, as visible in the contempt felt by foreign guest workers for their hosts as in the Neoclassical concrete façades of Saudi palaces in Jeddah and the ‘English week’ at a Dubai hotel, where I once saw a miserable Thai indentured labourer employed as a waitress and dressed as someone’s idea of a country milkmaid in bonnet and frock. The Iraqi invasion, which has brought gun-toting American women troops to the streets of Saudi Arabia, has redoubled the confusion. Like some Kuwaiti women refugees, America’s female soldiers drive vehicles on the roads. They also sweat through their T-shirts in public places and eat bacon at the airbases for breakfast. As the muezzin call the faithful to prayer in Dhahran, soldiers in one of the base’s hangars glance up at a banner full of messages of support sent by the students of Manchester township, New Jersey, USA. ‘Kick Some Butt!’ one of the children has scrawled. Meanwhile, in Washington and the capitals of Europe, politicians are asking themselves if they really want to go to war for reactionary and undemocratic Gulf governments as well as for oil.

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