Since December 2010, when Tunisia kicked off the string of uprisings currently reorienting the political landscape in the Arab World, I have repeatedly been asked, “Will that happen in Qatar (where I live) or other countries in the Gulf?” While researched and written prior to the Arab Spring, Sean Foley’s book about the Arab Gulf States – Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Qatar, and Oman – offers information and insights helpful in understanding how the Arab Gulf may accommodate its new regional environment.
Foley examines the Gulf’s socio-economic and political backdrop by starting in the 1930s and taking us through “the emergence of the modern Gulf” and into the present. He makes the point that today’s challenges in the Gulf predate the discovery of oil (in commercial quantities) in 1932, and that these states have been dealing with tough issues relating to foreign workers, gender, and a welfare system long before they became the focus of international media and politics.
The Arab Gulf States dashes many Western stereotypes of life and society in the Gulf. In the field of education and gender, Foley shows the past decades having witnessed a radical increase in the number of educated Gulf Arab women, who have gone on to assume leadership positions throughout society. This phenomenon cuts across all states in the region; educational attainment and social progress have advanced in Qatar, the UAE, Bahrain, and Kuwait. Oman has seen the largest gains in female students, where more women than men now attend school. In Saudi Arabia, between 1960 and 2000, female participation in the workforce grew as much as 691 percent.
Foley notes that the role of women in the Gulf continues to face cultural obstacles, but his depiction of the experience and quality of life for women in the region is appropriately nuanced and thoughtful. He points out that the Gulf’s social conservatives will increasingly face daunting challenges to traditional ways of life as a highly educated professional class of women overtakes men in professional advancement.
Foreign workers, who often are the majority of the population in some Gulf states, frequently are viewed as a threat to stability. But Foley shows that their presence is not new. The Gulf has never been homogenous but has always, since the time of the Prophet Muhammad, been host to diverse peoples including Jewish silversmiths, Catholic priests, Protestant missionaries, Hindu engineers, and Arab and Persian Shi’a Muslims. The influx of foreigners has always necessitated a healthy discussion among the Gulf countries about “inclusion, tolerance, and accommodation.”
Foley argues that the large presence of foreign residents forms an essential component of Gulf society and must continue for at least two reasons: their labor is critical to the region’s sustained economic growth and they significantly contribute to the area’s cultural enrichment. Unfortunately, the recent rise in nationalism has seen some Gulf states become less inclusive and accommodating to their foreign guests, either through the “disappearance” of certain groups, such as the Jews in Saudi, or by creating barriers to integration by restricting residency and citizenship. There are now sharper distinctions and inequalities between indigenous and expatriate populations. What remains unanswered is whether these tensions will intensify and, if so, how Gulf states will manage the divide between their huge foreign resident communities and their indigenous citizenries.
According to Foley, the Arab Gulf states have traditionally defused social and political tensions through establishing welfare states that have kept their citizenries financially comfortable. Ibn Saud, the founder of modern-day Saudi Arabia, initiated this strategy in 1915 and it continues today. Over the past year, I have often heard Qataris say, “There is no need for uprisings in Qatar like those in Egypt or Libya because we have more rights than we deserve.” Those rights are interpreted as socio-economic rights. Many Qataris appear satisfied with lesser civil and political freedoms so long as they are guaranteed a living standard that includes a salary, housing, healthcare, and education. However, such largess does not extend to the majority foreign-born population, which creates uncomfortable societal tensions. Similar difficulties exist for other states, which have not been unequivocally generous to all their residents (examples being the Shi’a in Saudi and Bahrain). Just how long this welfare state strategy will successfully last for the Arab Gulf states is an open question.
Foley ends his book by highlighting the chief question for Gulf Arabs: for almost a century they have balanced government dependence on Western security guarantees and financial ties with a citizenry that rejects many other Western policies, particularly those policies implicating the Israel/Palestine conflict. The withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq and the view that U.S. power in the Middle East is declining, coupled with region-wide radical political change, is pushing the Arab Gulf into new territory. Foley predicts that the Gulf states will meet such changes by staying the course. Governments will continue to support a welfare state, encouraging their indigenous populations to fill the workplace while remaining dependent on foreign workers, and accepting women into prominent positions in business and politics. The states will seek to reshape their societies and economies from one based on a single modern industry—oil—to one that is diversified and based on education, science, and technology. In Foley’s eyes, the Arab Gulf is a work in progress; where it will go remains to be seen.
Courtney Erwin has an M.A. in Islamic law and J.D. in international law. From 2007 to 2010, she was chief of staff at the Cordoba Initiative, an advocacy group that promotes improved relations between Islam and the West. She now lives in Doha, Qatar, working on issues related to legal protection for education during situations of insecurity and conflict.