Imagine you just won the lottery. Not just the two dollar kind either, but you hit the jackpot. All of America has turned their eyes on you, the biggest winner in history. Your net worth just went from about $100,000 to about $360,100,000 on a simple turn of a ball. Would you be excited? More likely than not, the strongest man on Earth couldn’t keep you down from absolutely wrecking your house in a fit of incredible, mad joy. Thoughts of what you would do with all that money would be running through your mind. You could buy that car you’ve always wanted, you know, that sweet 1963 Chevrolet Corvette Sting Ray that you only got to drive in your dreams. Why stop there, you could stake your claim on that Victorian style house on the waterfront. Invest the rest and, from this day on, you’re hereby retired.
Needless to say, if I asked you if you would change your lifestyle with this newfound wealth, I think you would say “yes”. However, just how far would you go? Would your friends change? I mean, can you really hang out with the old crew now that you’re one of the elites? Would you take up golfing as a new hobby? Think about it, the world is your oyster now. This may seem a little far-fetched, but this miracle story is exactly what is happening to the people in the Middle-East, namely the people of the United Arab Emirates.
Let’s swing the camera back a bit, though, and try to set the landscape for the UAE before it hit center stage. Till about the early 1900’s, the primary mode of transportation was camel. The economy lurched on with a freefalling pearl and fishing market. Most of the UAE people made ends meet by working as camel herders and date farmers (Madigan). Foreigners coming into the country was something that was basically unheard of, with the exception of Britain, who had established the then Trucial States in that area. However, with the advent on the new century, the scene in the Trucial States was a bleak one, with all of the people in the country falling upon hard times (Held 456). Even future ruler, Sheikh Zayed and his family would feel the harsh economic climate bustling overhead as bad times after another came around the corner.
In its short life, the UAE has had a colorful history. With its humble beginnings as a port town solely dependant on pearl fishing, Dubai grew to become a collective of “trucial” emirates in the mid-1800’s with the help of Britain and then to the UAE in 1971. No one could have guessed that this little fishing village would grow to not only a regional power, but an major international player. In fact, only a few generations have lived through the young life of this nation. The socio-economic shock of a drastic change in how the economy works and what you must do to get by has tested the people living there though.. (Held 456-457)
In terms of foreign relations, the UAE foreign policy has basically been “firmly principled on the deep-rooted certainties of mutual respect for other states, non-interference in their internal affairs as well as the commitment to Arab, Islamic and international covenants and treaties” (UAE marks 35 years of prosperity). This relatively active stance in the affairs and commitments to other countries is another substantial departure from the past. Given their prime location, their foreign relation policies are a great step for a more stable, globalizing Middle-East.
Also, at the historical “birth” of the UAE, there were only about 180,000 persons living within its borders. Today, though, there is over 1.8 million people living there. Over just 30 years the population in the UAE has increased tenfold. Not only that, just a few decades ago, there were only a few thousand kids. Now, there are more than 300,000 children, boys and girls, attend school even in the most remote of desert towns (Held 456). Wealth attracts people, and these people bring in a greater new generation.
In addition, with the new arrival of people on a massive scale, urbanization takes place. Before, there were only small burgs and villages dotting the countryside, but now, in just a few years, colossal cities stand tall and shake the heavens. Literally, towns have been transformed from “mud-walled communities into commercial capitals integrated in the global economy” (Sulayman). Urbanization in the UAE has been truly characterized by “unparalleled growth” in both the economy and the population.
Currently, the UAE’s political structure is that of a federation of seven emirates, each one represented by an appointed adviser body, that is the Federal National Council. All main state decisions are basically made by this council, which currently houses 40 members. Otherwise, the president and premier, both hereditary positions of clans of Abu Dhabi and Dubai respectively, dictate policy. (Held 456-460)
However, before all this took place, the UAE was literally destitute. Few people really understand how cold it can be to live with just the air in your lungs like those in the UAE did. They had absolutely no idea if they were going to be able to get food for tomorrow, or if they would be able to bring in what they needed to survive that day. Now most of us haven’t ever had to live without a roof over our head. Most of us haven’t ever had to go days on end without a warm meal. In fact, a lot of us have no idea how the other half lives (Riis 1).
A lot of us do live in a state of total helplessness though. Completely set adrift, and entirely dependant on the whims of a wayward tide to take us where we can survive just one more night. Would being like this make you feel bad? Wouldn’t you feel beaten down, day after day, by just barely making it. Then again, what if this was all you’ve ever known? All you’ve ever been told is to cling to your faith and try to make to make things work. The stigma of poverty can be a tricky thing to nail down. Can you really feel “less than human” if there was never something to set yourself up to compare to (Waxman 70)? Would you say that you were poor because of a lack of effort on your part? What about circumstances? Are you just weak in the character department? These thoughts might be running through some of the marginalized heads. However, regardless of what we all might think, most of the poor are actually quite the opposite (Waxman 102). The marginalized have been the frequent forerunners to some of the most monumental social changes in our history, from the Jewish holding on to their faith, to the African-American fighting for their rights.
Everyone can agree, though, that the lifestyle in the UAE before oil was hard. Most were probably satisfied with their life, but, like most of us would experience, always had a lingering thought on the edge of their mind about something more. As each day passed and each new dawn rose, they knew there had to be something more to life. Perhaps they thought they were marked, like Cain, from birth, destined to live a small lot in life (Riis 5). This inkling is something that many have told about, from the far corners of the world. Some of the most moving accounts can come from the lonely streets of Manhattan from the heart-rending stories of life in the tenements. Souls suffering a burden they have always known and bearing the weight of a world that chose never known them anyway (Riis 183-193). The strain of holding your head up, and holding your faith in life, in God, in the world from falling apart can be a touching experience. This weight can bury you or it can harden what you already believe. The question is, would you be free to express what was repressed in you, or would your beliefs be set in stone if the chains ever came off?
Most people don’t ever break the bonds of poverty. They never get to experience a life without shackles holding them down. Yet, in 1962, a few lucky people got to experience those shackles being undone when the UAE struck oil. History has shown, as well, just how the UAE people have taken their newfound freedom to heart.
After 1962, the money started flowing in. An oil hungry world turned its eyes towards its new darling just like America turned its eyes on you. First, how did their government react? Did the people of the UAE instantly forget about their heritage and tradition and begin fawning themselves in new western gadgetry? The answer is “no”. The first thing that this new wealth was invested in was the dredging of the “Khor Dubai”, a salt water inlet, and the establishment of public services for its citizens (The history of Dubai). This altruistic movement in the UAE government heralded much applaud from the world. Yet, their isolation from modern influence would not last.
With the influx of more and more wealth, came more and more western and modern influence in the UAE. Dubai expanded exponentially, airports were opened, internet cities become the new standard, life expectancy doubled, and tourism thrived. The UAE becomes synonymous with anything having to do with “‘the world’s largest’, ‘the world’s tallest’, ‘the world’s biggest'” (The History of Dubai). In just a few fleeting years, modernization had taken the forefront in socio-political affairs. No longer would the UAE settle for what it used to. No longer would the people be satisfied with their lot. Truly, their society has changed to become more open to the influences of modernization and westernization, but why? Is this change something any of us would undertake, or is it merely a unveiling of the true UAE man when he can finally fully express himself with his wealth?
Let’s look at the big picture first. In today’s world, the shadow of the industrial-capitalist society is “without any doubt, conquering, absorbing all the other cultures of this Earth” (Hall, Jarvie 122). In this case, the UAE is just another culture waiting to be assimilated. The reason, a disconnect between primitive and modern mentality (91). What tempted the people of the UAE to see from a modern perspective? Simply told, the alluring notion of freedom of thought and rationality (123).
The modern mentality is characterized by that which bore it, the industrialized west. A place where freedom of thought and rationality have flourished. Yet, this freedom of thought, is, “of course, bought at a price” (Hall, Jarvie 124). The consequences of taking on this freedom have been great and the UAE is experiencing them as we speak. The modern world is notorious for its “icy indifference to values, its failure to console and reassure, its total inability to validate norms and values or to offer any guarantee of their eventual success…” (123). The predicament of an open society, the one the UAE is embracing, is the sacrifice of their social and moral consistency in exchange for a higher standard of living materially. Within this brave new world, “there is no room either for magic or of the sacred” (123). With each passing day, wealth is setting the people free from their usual masters, the government, organized religion, etc.
We are beginning to see a paradigm shift in modern society, with the UAE as its poster child. People over time have been consistently defined by the authority that they live under (Holzner, Robertson 62). However, wealth has begun to change that authority. The sense and concept of identity in the UAE is inextricably linked with the concept of who and what the authority represents, but the concept of idealizing the imam, or sheik, or even God Himself, is fading without a trace with the cold, bitter night of tradition. Will the new dawn of modernity reveal a world that was as green as the sun of tradition once embraced though?
For now, the new generation of the UAE is facing this challenge head on. They find themselves hopelessly entangled in a web of family, religion, market, and state. Suddenly, the people of the UAE are thrust with the task of redefining the role of religion and family in a continually advancing and globalizing world (Yamani 2). The economic and social forces of the developed nations are gathering on the horizon, and with only their own eyes to guide them now, it is within their power to reshape their lives and their relationship to the state.
This is no easy task. Now, not only do the people of the UAE have to embrace modernity and wealth in their society but also, to maintain the former, globalization. The phenomenon of globalization actually began around 30 years ago in the 1970’s. Since its inception, the world has been forced out of its isolationist intentions and into a new era of proactive world players (Nanopoulos, Ricciardelli, Urban 19-20). Nowadays, all major economic systems have a near mutual impact on each other due to the exponential growth of telecommunications and the new found powers behind action and reaction on the world stage. You can just imagine that this has “put both traditional macroeconomic… and the economic policy that derives from it,… into a crisis mode” (20).
With the advent of UAE oil and its dynamic restructuring of its economic framework into a more technologically self-sufficient society, it appears on face value that the UAE has been able to overcome its “traditional” economic handicap of years past. However, by standing tall on the world stage, it has also come under the influence of an increasingly global people. In fact, the “vigorous stimulus” of the recent UAE activities, “globalization is accelerating and impacting more and broader fields of activity” within the country (Nanopoulos, Ricciardelli, Urban 121).
One need only to look at the percentage of the workforce in the UAE. According to the latest statistics, about 70% of the overall workforce in the UAE are expatriates (Janardhan). Not only are foreigners a majority of the workforce, they are an overwhelming and vital majority for the continuation of the economic stability of the UAE. What’s more, not all of these foreigners hold an Islamic belief, and Arabic traditions may not be so near and dear to their hearts. Yet, the UAE is deeply dependant on these workers and thus has to respect their beliefs and traditions as well. In their rise to wealth, the people of the UAE must not only allow, but also welcome those of different values than themselves in order to prosper in an increasingly materialistic world. In this sense, the UAE has become a melting pot of cultures, societies, and communities (Khalaf). In serving as a melting pot, the people of the UAE have subconsciously laid their sacred values a step lower, and opened themselves up to a new form of thought, something that will not be forgotten on the younger generations that are stepping up to lead.
The consequences of this, though, can be greater than anyone has ever even imagined. Our world is becoming increasingly frightening to those of the older generations, and the UAE is no different. With the modern world brings what some would call “peculiar” conditions. The human dynamism is being taken out of the streets, replaced by technological marvels and other intermediaries (Kahler138). With tradition taking a second ring to efficiency and wealth, we see a new leader rising in the fragmenting remains of human personality, material self-sufficiency (139). Awash in a complex stream of developments, with the money and power to utilize them at your slightest whim, one can understand the uneasiness building up behind the eyes of the elderly when they look to the children.
They see that there are no more boundaries, no more chains of tradition, and certainly no more strings attached to their innermost desires. The people of the UAE have felt freedom for the first time when they struck oil, and the youth in the UAE have been born in this freedom. Reasonably enough, they want to keep that feeling of freedom, and as time has passed, they have shown a willingness to sacrifice things in order to keep it. The sacrifices started small, but, eventually, they have had to sacrifice their very cultural identity in order to hold on to this freedom.
We live in a new world now. Modernity and globalization is being pushed on them, and the people in the UAE know that. No longer is the person the decisive factor. No longer is the individual in control. With globalization, we live in a world where the “collective and no longer the individual is the standard unit” (Kahler 16). Many of this might find this statement a stifling offense against our deep-seated individualism here in the states. However, whether or not you realize it, our society is leading the way towards this “mutation” of human culture. The UAE also recognizes the need to transform from a society based solely on the individual, to a community based in and of itself in order to achieve its “utopian” prospects (17-18). A bold transition, though, because it puts in peril the tradition and belief that was ingrained so long ago in the individual. It forces the individual to relinquish his values in order to accept the “supra-individual” values (16).
Is this new world going somewhere though? Is it going towards catastrophe? Towards paradise? Right now, it’s anyone’s guess. What is certain though, is that the future of Islam as we know it is uncertain (Bulliet 100). The aforementioned attraction to material wealth has understandably eroded previous moral and ethical values for better or worse. The future is in a new and directionless frontier now (101-102). In its place is a cornucopia of “pamphlets, magazines, radio preachers, and Internet sites” (104), all afforded by the influx of wealth in UAE Arabic culture. With this we see an increasingly democratic nature in the state taking root. The “freedom of thought” once again rears its head in the political contraptions of Arabic states, especially the UAE. The ideas of freedom and equality are resounding with more clarity at each and every passing generation, and the UAE has been the vanguard for change in the Middle East. With democratic elections, women in offices of power, and giving a voice to those who’ve had it taken from them in the past, it seems that with wealth comes freedom, and with freedom comes democracy. Can the seeds of democracy, though, hold steady in a land that has muffled its calling for so long though?
To begin with, how has wealth and democracy mixed in our own country? Over the two centuries our nation has spanned, America has truly written a grand saga on the struggles of wealth and power. From Rockefeller to Gates, we have seen the intricacies of how the wealthy and politically elite work in unison in order to “create or perpetuate privilege” in our society (Phillips 171-201). Unfortunately, this act usually comes at the cost of the national interest of the rest of us, most notably the middle and lower classes in America. Moreover, we’ve seen the subtle moves of corruption slither their way into party politics, a brutal and dangerous spawn of “money politics”. You need only need to take a closer look at some of the dubious economic philosophies being dished out in Congress, or reexamine our tax laws for the wealthy or elite. In fact, have you ever questioned the selective bailouts frequently made “in the name of free enterprise, economic stimulus, and national security” (230)?
This corruption, though, has deeper implications than just the world we see and live in today. Many scholars believe that America is experiencing the same symptoms of prior economic powers during their decline, such as Britain. With excessive wealth being concentrated in smaller sections of the population and power politics being used carelessly as a deadly double edged sword, we could be experiencing the decline of the “Second Gilded Age” of America. The question is now, is this fate changeable? Furthermore, could it be a destiny that is avoidable in our contemporaries, like the UAE?
Unfortunately, corruption has already been spotted in the budding democracy in the UAE. The latest incident was the arrest of Dubai’s Customs Chief, who was also the chairman of the World Customs Organization. Along with the chief, two top aides under him were also arrested, the whole lot being accused of amassing “tens of millions of dollars through corrupt practices” (Corruption Commission for UAE). Take note, that the cause of the corruption was money, a vast amount of money. With wealth comes power, and with power comes more power. However, when great wealth is seemingly easy to get a hold of, the souls of men tend to become a little too enticed with the power it produces. Coupled with the freedom that democracy brings, a new environment begins to emerge. One of limited liability and limited responsibility, but of unlimited potential and unlimited power and wealth. An environment of money and business, of materials goods and services. This fearless new world, though, is in sharp contrast with the traditions many hold dear. Yet, which one will win out?
Granted though, we have witnessed great advances in the UAE culture. They have pushed for equal rights for all of their citizens, they have pushed for greater medical care, they have pushed for better housing and transportation, and they have fought for better lives for everyone in the UAE (Khalaf). Their wealth has truly not gone to waste as they have made spectacular strides to raising the average person to extraordinary status. They have reformed labor laws, and they have created numerous safety nets for individuals to be caught by. All of these efforts for the average citizen cannot and must not be forgotten, and all of them were possible because of the great wealth that the UAE has acquired.
The struggle between tradition, wealth, and democracy won’t be an easy one. We have seen the same contenders all too many times. The battlefields may change, but the ideologies that seek their own niche in culture do not. The UAE was the prime target. A place barren of the fruits of industrialization, wrought with poverty, and looking for a better life. With oil, they found it.
Oil isn’t the only thing on the mind of the government of the UAE though. While the UAE may be oil rich, they are far from the juggernaut of oil reserves, and they know it. Already, the UAE is building key infrastructure to outfit and maintain its place as one of the wealthiest nations per-capita in the world. Right now, Dubai, now called the “Hong Kong of the Gulf” (Salloum), handles around $50 billion in non petroleum trade. In fact, many consider Dubai to be the “last stronghold of anything goes capitalism”. Dubai currently nets around $25,000 in imports per capita, ranking it among the world’s busiest trading centers (Salloum). In fact, at a recent summit, it has been stated that “…although the UAE is the world’s sixth oil producer, its economy does not rely much on oil revenue…”, and that, “…the country has succeeded in its economic diversification policy with the non-oil sectors contribution to the GDP accounting for 376 billion AED last year…” (UAE is the miracle of the 21st century) This summit marked another official recognition of the impressive caliber of the UAE economy.
Not only is the UAE rich in trade, it is also rich in tourism. Abu Dhabi is working on securing its little niche in the tourism business by getting the ball rolling on a number of huge cultural projects. These projects are said to include the construction of “four museums, including a Guggenheim and, perhaps, a local version of the famous Louvre of Paris, as well as an art centre” (Mahjoub). Tourism is topping the agenda in many of the emirates in the UAE. Along the same lines, Dubai also offers a great many attractions for the wandering tourist to gawk at, including some shopping holiday sensations, etc (Mahjoub). Right now, the UAE is bent on ensuring its future through alternative economic methods rather than depending solely on crude oil reserves. In doing so, the UAE further opens itself up to more outsider influence, and further alienates itself from the isolation its culture once enjoyed not just 300 years ago.
We have always been told that times do change, and people must change with them. In order to survive, humanity must be willing to change. On hindsight, we have the luxury of criticizing those who changed for the worse, but, when the days all look the same, and the future is not really certain, only the human heart can guide the soul. Change is inevitable, circumstances demand it, but, how far one goes is a choice that only that one can make. He alone bears the gravity of changing himself, and the new generation he brings in, for better or for worse.
Getting rich, as we’ve seen, doesn’t come cheap. Winning the lottery doesn’t just happen everyday, but most of those who win eventually slide back into the depths of the economic life they once lived. The 20th and 21st centuries have been the lucky numbers for the UAE. However, luck doesn’t stay with someone forever either. The UAE has made some bold and daring new steps in order to secure that they have a place in the world, that they have a voice that will be heard, and that they have the power and wealth that they enjoy now years to come. What is not so certain, though, is whether these new initiatives were worth the cost. The cost of a people, the once proud Arab traditionalist is becoming nothing more than an old bedtime story these days. Replaced now with the modern Arab businessman, or Arab politician, or even Arab entrepreneur. More and more we are seeing the unique Arab-Islam culture dilute into this growing western melting pot. As they progress deeper and deeper into a future of globalization and wealth, will they forget who they once were? The costs are enormous, but the prize is a utopia like none have ever beheld, and it’s all in their hands now.
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