Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Qatar


Qatar

Al-Jazeera



As the summer comes to a close, I often think about this blog which I started just a few months ago. Already in its early stages, I have found that the Global Book Challenge has affected my life and my relationships in ways that I never could have imagined. My summer has been filled with such experiences: 
  • I became re-acquainted with a friend from Pakistan, who graduated from my college a few years ago. We bumped into each other and scheduled a time to grab coffee together. She requested to read my book on Pakistan, and later, critiqued some of the author’s conclusions.
  • I now have an ongoing email dialogue with an Azerbaijani student who is getting his masters degree in economics from a university in Georgia (the country – not the state!)
  • During a recent family trip to Washington D.C., my family stayed at the home of my grandfather’s cousin, a professor of ecology who had actually spent time in Turkey as a Fulbright scholar. We bonded with his family over authentic meals and Turkish tea.
  • I became friends with a girl from Iran. She read about my book blog on a mutual friend’s Facebook page and wanted to join the challenge. We met a couple of times over the summer and she even started reading my book on Myanmar.
  • I have been in contact with two Saudi students via the internet, who have offered to answer questions about their home country once Ramadan is over this coming Saturday.
  • I reconnected with my mother’s cousin who works in the oil industry, and has traveled to several countries in the Middle East for work-related activities. 
  • My grandfather gave me all of his father’s photographs from India and Africa, which he took   as a doctor in World War II.
The Global Book Challenge has affected my life in even more ways. Family and friends are constantly emailing the news they read which pertain to the countries I have studied. They often start our dialogue with the question, “So, what country are you reading about now?”

Recently, my grandmother called me and exclaimed, “Hurry and turn it on 60 Minutes! There’s going to be something about a country near Iran!” The country to which she was referring was Qatar. (The 60 minutes TV segment to which she referred can be viewed here.) Although Qatar had never been on my radar until I saw the Qatar Foundation splashed across the FC Barcelona shirts, Al-Jazeera has actually been an integral part of my family’s life for a couple of years. My father frequently turns on Al-Jazeera English (which he accesses through an internet stream). When he does, I always hear his sigh of relief: “This is what news should be: stories and opinions from all over the world – not just two political parties.”

For those who do not know, Al-Jazeera is a prominent news channel originating from Qatar, covering many issues of importance of the Arab world. It has become the premier news provider to the Arab world – a great feat considering that “the connections that bind the 300 million Arabs in twenty-two countries are often abstract. It is not a military alliance, a political truce, an economic cooperative, or a simple linguistic tie. It may not even be reduced to a common religion” (page 20.) As one would expect, Al-Jazeera was originally broadcast in Arabic. However, starting in 2006, Al-Jazeera broadened its scope to include and English-language channel.

In Arabic, Al-Jazeera means “the island” or “the peninsula”, which corresponds with the geographical shape of Qatar, jutting out into the Persian Gulf off of Saudi Arabia. What perhaps is so interesting about the book is how this little country provided a home for a news channel which has made a dramatic impact on the rest of the Middle East. It is this paradox that authors Mohammad El-Nawawy and Adel Iskandar focus on in their book, “Al-Jazeera:The Story of the Network that Is Rattling Governments and Redefining Modern Journalism.”

Al-Jazeera is a news agency incredibly different from its other Arabic predecessors. “Traditionally, most discussion programs on Arabic TV stations are noncontroversial and do little else but serve as a public relations outlet for governments. Al-Jazeera provided the first exposure to opposing voices…” (page 11.) To support this assertion, the authors share a media war fought by Sadam Hussein during the Iraqi invasion into Kuwait in the Gulf War. The media reported, inaccurately, that Kuwait had been taken over by a military coup, and that this group then gave the power to Iraq.

Al-Jazeera strays from this tradition by following the motto of: “The opinion and the other opinion.” By following this motto, Al-Jazeera has developed love-hate relationships with many of the leaders (or former leaders) of the Arab World. Interestingly, the United States has also had a relatively tumultuous relationship with Al-Jazeera, with many believing that Al-Jazeera provided too much air time to Al-Qaeda. During America’s invasion into Afghanistan, Al-Qaeda provided Al-Jazeera unprecedented access to information and entry into the country. In fact, the interviews of Bin Laden which circulated on American news media were first provided to the Al-Jazeera network.

This book was originally written in 2003 - before the introduction of Al-Jazeera English to the airwaves and certainly before the Arab Spring. Thus, it is very interesting to read the predictions of the authors that have come true. The authors believed that the open dialogues made accessible through Al-Jazeera would cause increased political mobilization in the Middle East. There is no doubt that this news network and the small country which hosts it has made a tremendous impact on its neighbors and has the ability to make an impact for many years to come.

Please feel free to comment on these topics or note something interesting from the book. I look forward to hearing your opinions!  

United Arab Emirates


United Arab Emirates

City of Gold


“What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas” is the catchphrase of the Las Vegas tourism commercials, which are staples to late night television. As a night-person, I have to admit that I am familiar with most of them. They are all similar; utilizing bright lights, beautiful people in designer clothes, and hypnotic dance music. This “Las Vegas image” is not only perpetuated by commercials, but also by television shows and movies.

A few years ago, my family took a trip out West – staying at the homes of different family members and friends along the way. While in Las Vegas, we were generously hosted by my father’s cousin. I did enjoy the time we spent with him, but he tore this idealized image of Las Vegas apart.

At first, he was hesitant to take us to the Strip, calling the place “boring” and “touristy.” Considering that we spent the night before dining at P.F. Changs in a mall outside of the city, I was ready to experience any part Las Vegas culture – no matter how touristy. Upon finding a parking space, he jumped out of the car and began marching along the sidewalk, pointing at casinos along the way. My parents and I tried to keep up after him – dodging tourists, sometimes unsuccessfully. I noticed that my family’s parade was attracting a good deal of attention: My mother and I tried to keep up, running and wincing in our high heels. But moreover, my cousin (who is a cop) had forgotten to leave his gun at home after work. I had gone to Las Vegas to see a spectacle, but found myself the spectacle instead.

I do not know where I first learned about Dubai – but I realized that I had a very similar image of Dubai that I had of Las Vegas – wealth, some degree of lawlessness, with a transient population. So, when it came to choosing a book about the United Arab Emirates, I decided to choose a book focusing on the history of Dubai to hopefully broaden my understanding. I chose Jim Krane’s “City of Gold: Dubai and the Dream of Capitalism,” an interesting book which explores the history, the success, and the future challenges of Dubai.

First of all, I will give some basic facts of the United Arab Emirates. The United Arab Emirates (or the UAE) consists of seven separate kingdoms. Each of these individual kingdoms is run by a hereditary ruler called an emir. A relatively new country, it has experienced tremendous development since its creation in 1971. The two most well-known emirates, at least in the western world, are Abu Dhabi and Dubai. Abu Dhabi has gained much of its wealth through its plethora of oil reserves, discovered in the 1960s. Dubai was endowed with much less oil than its neighbor, and thus had to turn to other industries to achieve a higher level of wealth.

Dubai grew to the power which it is today due to a series of risky investments of the rulers. Instead of developing and using oil revenues in similar ways to their Arab neighbors, Dubai began to invest in other sectors of their economy. The rulers saw Dubai as a center of the shipping industry, investing in a dry port, and even a new airport. The country also worked at being open and accessible to foreign investments and businesses. “Sheikh Rashid’s motto is famous in Dubai: ‘What’s good for the merchants is good for Dubai’… But Rashid knew Dubai’s prosperity meant keeping ahead of Abu Dhabi, a neighbor with more resources than Dudai could hope for. To do this, Dubai jumped at every opportunity, cornering industries and economic sectors” (pages 75-76.)

One of the most interesting parts highlighted in this book is the relationship concept of citizenship, the barriers of citizenship for foreigners, and government stability. The government system of Dubai is very different from that which is familiar to me, and can be described as a “tribal autocracy. It’s autocratic because a single ruler, Sheikh Mohammad in Dubai’s case, holds unlimited power. It’s tribal because rule is based on tribe and family, with power handed down the generations” (page 135.) However, Dubai does benefit to some degree because it is autocratic. The Sheikh can make decisions that would take a great deal longer to implement in democratic nations like the United States. The author gives an example that when the Sheikh learned about new environmental standards; he required that all new buildings conform to them. Contractors in the middle of projects suddenly had to change and conform to these new rules.

There is no democratic voice in Dubai. Nor is there much clamoring for a democratic voice. UAE citizenship is limited to ethnic Emiratis, who receive many handouts from the government. An average $55,000 yearly subsidy is given to each male citizen. Moreover, “Emiratis get free land, cheap electricity, and free water. Health care is free. Food and gasoline are subsidized. Education is free…” (page 267.) It is interesting to note that “UAE citizens make up about 15 percent of the country’s total population of around 6 million” (page 253.) In fact, citizenship is so restricted that multiple generations of foreign workers have been born on UAE soil, but citizenship is never offered to them. Citizenship is only for a select few. The rest of the people in Dubai are there only for the purpose of work or jobs – perhaps making it the ultimate city of capitalism.

Please feel free to comment on these topics or note something interesting from the book. I look forward to hearing your opinions!  

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Oman


Oman

In the Time of Oil



One fact about me: I cannot fall asleep before 1:00am, despite my best efforts. It has now gotten to the point that I do not even make an effort anymore. My most productive moments occur when I am sitting in front of a glowing laptop at 3am, with jazz booming through my earphones and a cup of hot decaf coffee just at arms-reach. However, by not making this effort, I will admit that my mornings are horrendous. I have a set of alarm clocks strategically placed around my room in order to ensure that I wake up. My morning agenda then consists of pouring a cup of coffee and spending the next thirty minutes scouring the internet news and social media sites. Last week, I experienced a disruption to this ritual: the internet was down.

I was completely thrown off and spent the rest of the day as if in a daze. While in a meeting, I couldn’t hold back my frustration and blurted out, “My internet is down and I haven’t even checked my emails today!” Of course, thinking back on this, I am a bit disturbed by my dependency on technology. Despite the typical American belief of celebrating modernity and technological advancements, my family placed a strong emphasis on being connected to the past. Both my father and my maternal grandfather enjoy genealogy in their spare time. Needless to say, I spent a good part of my childhood attending historical re-enactments (not as an actress – which would have been very cool), family reunions, and graveyards to find the burial grounds of my ancestors.

In fact, when I was ten years old, my great-grand uncle purchased a house in western North Carolina that was in a state of disrepair. This home was built before 1790 by Jacob Shook, an American Revolution war veteran who also happens to be my direct ancestor. My family became very involved in documenting the restoration process and encouraged me to conduct my own research into the house. As it turns out, my ancestor was a strong supporter of the early Methodist movement. He dedicated the upper room of his home as a prayer chapel and shaped-note singing school. He donated a portion of his land as camp meeting grounds. Oral tradition also states that circuit rider Francis Asbury spent the night and even preached from the doorway of Jacob Shook’s home. I cherish the memories I have at the Shook House; playing in the creek in the back yard and spending time with my family.

Growing up in the United States – a place which is often so separated from a sense of history – the concept of history is extremely interesting to me. While in Barcelona, I couldn’t get over the fact that I walked past Roman ruins every day. My interest in different perceptions of history caused me to choose Mandana E. Limbert’s “In the Time of Oil: Piety, Memory & Social Life in an Omani Town.” In this book, the author describes the vast changes which have recently taken place in Oman. She states that many Omanis have a difficult time believing that the present age is permanent and doubt that the many modern conveniences will last. Instead, they believe that the past circumstances of poverty will reemerge in the future.

The author describes current Omani society as completely different from the past: “The coup d’etat of 1970 and the oil economy that accompanied the post-coup regime inaugurated a new era in Oman, an era of flawless asphalt roads and shiny banks with marble floors and gold doors, an era of piped water, ‘modern’ schools, and abundant coffee.” (page 165) Omanis believe that the acquisitions of these modern conveniences directly relates to the finding of oil in Oman. However, the appearance of sources stating that Oman has only 20 years of oil sources remaining contributes to the sense that wealth and the luxuries it provides should not be considered permanent.

Nonetheless, the influences of modern conveniences are permeating through many aspects of Omani society, and are changing a way of life that has been established for centuries. As the author is a woman, Limbert was able to experience the Omani women’s customs and traditions, which are outlined in chapters 3 and 4.

Before the discovery of oil, women were required to work together in the fields to make ends meet. By doing so, they fostered a sense of community. Now, as these women are no longer required to work, their newly-found leisure time is spent in a community. Many women in the Bahla (the town where the author lived) community congregate every morning just to talk and share morning coffee. However, many of the younger generation, including their own daughters, consider this time idle and even against the Islamic tradition. While their mothers are focused at maintaining a sense of community, the younger generation are much more private.

What I found most interesting about this book was the author’s description of the Omani mindset: the people’s nebulous concept of the present and their desperate attempts to keep history alive. However, this book left me with some questions:
  • In one part, the author describes a newly-created road dividing the town of Bahla into two parts. She states that it could be viewed as a symbol of the power of the emir – or at least the central government – over even remote areas of Oman. For those who have visited this area, do you feel as if the emir’s power is felt in such an obvious way? Why or why not?
  • For people in Oman or from the Middle East, do you recognize a different mindset between yourself and older generations? Are there differences of opinion about topics such as community, personal space, and individuality? 
Please feel free to comment on these topics or note something interesting from the book. I look forward to hearing your opinions!