Razib Khan One-stop-shopping for all of my content

September 20, 2017

Tales of the Arabian week

Filed under: Arab,Arabs,Persian Gulf trip — Razib Khan @ 9:15 pm

This summer I had the pleasure of spending a week in July visiting a Gulf nation which was not Saudi Arabia. It was so hot and humid that my glasses would fog over in the 110-degree weather (Fahrenheit). The reason I went was for a possible business opportunity. As someone who is an atheist from a Muslim background, I am not keen on visiting a Muslim majority country (sorry to be Islamophobic, but Muslim majority countries scare me, so I’m literally phobic). But an opportunity is an opportunity, and off I went.

In hindsight, I should have been less fearful. Though there are cases of Western passport holders from Muslim backgrounds getting in trouble, in general, they seem to have given me the same latitude as other non-natives. Getting drunk at Nobu and eating too much delicious food is nothing I can complain about. Staying at the Four Seasons meant that every morning I could order and compose a breakfast which was a nice international melange of flavors.

The only amusing mishap I can report is that one evening I went to get dinner at the hotel restaurant with the friend who I was on the trip with. He’s a white American. He also is a teetotaler. I ordered a glass of red wine and when the server came back (the same who I had ordered from) he placed the alcohol next to my friend. He was quite embarrassed when he realized what he’d done.

In terms of religion, the region is very conservative. But that conservatism primarily applies to natives. Since the natives mixed so little with the majority expat population diversity and pluralism did not seem to be very difficult to maintain. Diversity and pluralism did not impact the natives, and expats tended to live in their own communities. On the flight back an American kid who had spent two years in the Gulf did complain that outside of their compound there was a problem with local officials capriciously enforcing rules such as that which banned sleeveless shirts. Apparently, local kids of good background got more slack on these norms, probably because they were well connected.

It was definitely a caste society. The native population is by and large leisured. Asians did most of the productive work. Every driver we had was a Filipino. The wait staff was a mix; South Asian, Eastern European, East Asian, Southeast Asian, African. We visited several facilities where all the security seemed to East African. Many higher level service professionals were from other parts of the Middle East. There were a fair number of Muslim Southeast Asians in professional roles. Everyone knew their place. The staff at the hotel were exceedingly obsequious.

There was no pretense at democracy or liberty. Rule of law was on the whims of the local aristocracy. Expats were basically a servile caste. I only interacted with professionals or the hotel staff, not the working class. But even they were aware that their residence permits could be revoked at any time. There were stories of people who were jailed for getting on the wrong side of an aristocrat. If they neared power, they had to know who to cultivate.

I always say that Robert Kaplan’s 2000 book The Coming Anarchy should have been titled “The Coming Oligarchy.” My experience in the Gulf definitely showed me an illustration of that sort of society. There was some degree of comfort and affluence, but it was juxtaposed against a regression away from modernity as we’d understand it, with its legal egalitarianism.

It left me with the only solution to inequality that I can see in the near future: make sure you are nearer to the top.

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