Available languages:
Carta di credito
Religion and Society

A Regime of Net Separation

The Gulf' is a convenient way of describing a geographical area we like to think of as an entity with an identity of its own but, like all cartographical references, it has definite limitations when we wish to describe the character of a vast and varied area, and even more when we want to particularise social phenomena. It is important to recognise that the term comprises seven countries: Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Oman, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Qatar. Even if they naturally have some broad traits in common - due to climate and religion (and here we must remember that Islam is not a monochrome and uniform influence, since there are different emphases and expressions within this religion) - the very different histories of these countries have left a marked impress on their societies since they have existed as separate self-governing nations in the modern understanding of the word for less than a hundred years and some of them for less than forty. We are dealing with a general and over-hasty way of speaking and one could say that the term 'The Gulf' allows for as much variation among its societies as the terms 'Europe' or 'South America' do. In looking, therefore, at these societies in order to bring out consistencies in attitudes and situations we should not forget the many inconsistencies that also exist and so we should not be too ready to ascribe to one society a situation that has been observed in another. That these differences are not insignificant can perhaps be exemplified by the fact that Dubai is a top tourist destination (with Muscat, Bahrain, and Qatar trying to catch up fast), whereas Saudi Arabia is not.


Questions about migrant populations face the additional difficulty that facts about population are not easily available, and, in fact, are largely a matter of guesswork - intelligently deductive guesswork perhaps, but seldom based on indisputable statistics, for few figures are released by governments. This is perhaps due to an understandable fear of exposing great weaknesses, but to ascribe a motive does not render the question more susceptible to analysis.



With regard to immigrants, Gulf countries must be among the most diverse in the world. It may be that in terms of foreign nationals they are not very much more diversified in population than some other countries to which people head in search of a better life, but it is important to remember that here immigrants can make up the majority of the total population of a country. Gulf countries can, therefore, 'feel' more international. Although it is certainly true that there are what one could call, with only a slight stretching of the meaning of the term, 'ghettoes' in many Western countries, they are nonetheless grafted onto a local society, the aim of which is ultimately to absorb them organically. This in the knowledge, and sometimes welcome knowledge, that the host society will be changed in some way, but always with the assumption - perhaps misguided? - that the local culture will prevail. The central question is: what does the term 'immigrant' mean?



In most countries this word denotes a person who comes from another country, not only to take up residence in a second country but also to stay and adopt the citizenship of that nation. In Gulf countries this is rarely possible. Firstly, the local populations would certainly be swamped. It would be like a tidal wave, for if the local population in some countries at present comprises less than 20% of the total, with the additional bait of an eventual citizenship the invasion would be overwhelming. If we sometimes want to be critical of the governments of the Gulf for their stringent, and even draconian, immigration policies, we should stop and think what the attitude of some European countries would be if their own nationals were outnumbered 5 to 1 or more by the immigrant population.



A second powerful factor is religion. Although a few non-Muslims have been granted a host country's passport, they are very exceptional. It is hard to envisage that non-Moslems could receive the same privilege in great numbers in countries where even Christians are either not permitted to worship or are tolerated but with severe restrictions. Islam, like Christianity, is an actively proselytising religion and so change is possible. But only in one direction! That is, non-Muslims can become Muslims, and this would presumably assist in assimilation. Religion is so powerful, however, that while changing religions is possible, that path is only open to non-Muslims. Muslims cannot change their religion. This should be borne in mind when weighing the importance of religion in relation to the immigrant population.



Certainly, there are great (racial and religious) prejudices in some societies, in Saudi Arabia, for example, but there are far less in others: Dubai, for example. However, these matters are not uniform in every society of the Gulf: the authorities and the educated are largely tolerant, even in Saudi Arabia, if one is careful about what one means by tolerant (that is, nothing is allowed that could threaten the religious and cultural solidarity of society), but the mass of the population is less so. The work and aims of the GCC (1) are ensuring a gradual increase in uniformity, with its regulations to standardise laws and practice, but local conditions and attitudes vary considerably, as they must do in relation to the development needs of different countries.



Therefore prejudice and racism, are widespread, if sometimes only latent. Christians and other non-Muslims are tolerated in important and even powerful positions if they can be respected for their personal and professional abilities. A pragmatism is at work here. The lower the social scale, the more strongly prejudices can be applied because such people are more easily replaced. In the constant search for cheap labour, the Nepalese are in great favour because of their low cost. Of course, they can be taken on and laid off at will. Greater scope for unprincipled profit-making will no doubt be furnished by the increasing number of Chinese. On the whole, Westerners are liked for their professional ability and integrity if they have those qualities, and many are employed in well-paid positions. But it should be remembered that they cannot be mistaken for a permanent member of society and are equally, if not quite so easily, disposed of if they become unnecessary.



There is no doubt, however, that everyone everywhere feels more comfortable working with people of the same culture. And culture, no matter what Europeans like to think, is largely based on religion. For better or for worse, our communal memory, our identity, and our points of reference are the product of our traditions which come from our religious history. Many Europeans may like to think that human rights and justice, the cornerstones of their thinking about an ideal society, are simply the result of being human. They are not. The history of these concepts can be easily traced, and their roots speak for themselves. That is not to claim a superiority for European civilisation in possessing these features, or superiority for any other civilisation. It is simply to state that where people feel at home, they are more comfortable, and the confusion that is a constant threat to human sanity and well-being can be kept reasonably at bay. Every society feels the same about these things, and those of the Gulf are no exception.



A sharper edge to this is a recent phenomenon: Arabs working in 'the West', especially in the USA, have come to the UAE (and elsewhere as well) in the wake of the distrust of them following 9/11. The experience of some of our people is that they are very hard-line and adopt a more extreme Muslim attitude than the local people, that they are determined in work-places to get rid of non-Muslims, especially Christians, as much as possible, and lastly that they want to impose Islamic customs, such as the veil for all women. These people, however, are as much migrant workers as anyone else. What is more imponderable is the extent of the influence that they will have. Local Arabs are no more fools than anyone else and they can presumably discern those who heavily throw in their weight with Islam because it serves their purpose, as well as those whose very sincerity and personal histories can in the long-run make them unwelcome guests.



Marking Distinctions and Differences



Just as governments do not place all their eggs in one basket and try to prevent the domination of any one race or nation in any strategic position (of commerce or power), so commercial companies do the same. If in order to spread their power base they have to employ non-Muslims they will do so, seemingly fairly cheerfully, for laws are in place that make foreign employees disposable with the least inconvenience being caused to society. Society in general reflects the same tendency to mark differences: each community tends to be distinct. Note, for example, the freedom with which people advertise for an employee or a lodger of a particular race or country. Our church notice-boards are sprinkled with offers of accommodation only to bachelors or families of carefully specified origins. This is an approach that is not publicly possible in Europe and other places.



As a result of the general communication explosion in modern life, of studying abroad, and the arrival of large numbers of foreign workers, there have obviously been greater possibilities of finding, and even a tendency to look for, spouses from another nation, often a non-Arab nation. Governments are aware of the danger and so much so that men in the UAE need special permission to marry a non-local, who may or may not be granted citizenship. Local women are more severely disadvantaged and there have been vociferous - and ineffective - protests from local women with foreign husbands whose children have to have foreign passports.



A similar and insidious danger has been noted in the almost universal practice of employing foreign domestic staff. Letters to the press reveal a fear that servants, especially nannies, can have great influence on children. This is especially feared in the sphere of religion. This is not a question of other races not mixing with pure Arabs. Races simply do not mix much at all except at work, and where they do, it is not usually a very relaxed mixing. This seems to me to be the outstanding characteristic of society here. Intermingling does happen in a limited way, but there is little inter-marriage between communities, or even real socialising on a widespread scale. By 'real' socialising I mean the sort of mixing that is the result of, or conducive to, open and disinterested friendships and the exchange of frank opinions. The Church is probably the greatest instance of racial mixing. One should remember, however, that this is not merely an example of racial and cultural distance: it is also due to the fact that people cannot take the citizenship of the country in which they work and bring up their families, and so they must plan to go back to their own countries and societies when they leave. The result is that people stick with their own kind and feel that it is not necessary to make the effort.



There is also the feeling that it is not wise. Lack of inter-cultural understanding can turn any meeting, even a friendly gesture or overture, into a minefield. Suspicion and fear are widespread, not only as regards the guest population and the indigenous one, but between the multifarious expatriate groups themselves. With the desire, often born of perceived responsibilities, to find work for people of their own family or nation or religion, foreign workers can become adept at edging out others. There are statutory rights of employment in all Gulf countries, but these can be applied only with great difficulty. The result inevitably is that people, even after many years of satisfactory service, can have their employment terminated at a moment's notice. If someone has a family to support and has spent a long enough time here to render his chances of employment at home fairly negligible, it can easily be understood that fear and insecurity are emotions that people must learn to live with every day. Security lies with the known. One does not run to other races, other religions, and other nationals for security.



World of Incomprehension



Other non-Gulf Arabs are not necessarily privileged among the immigrants. Often they are seen as a greater threat to the integrity of the local society than a foreigner who is obviously extraneous and therefore often preferred. This is comparable to the importation of literature. The bringing of Bibles and religious literature is permitted in some places, but these materials must not be in Arabic. The tolerance of non-indigenous Arabs largely depends on their social and professional position, and their financial standing. Many foreign Arabs are poor and in no way privileged. Christian Arabs often have a hard time because of the natural assumption among Arab Muslims who know no history is that 'Arab' and 'Muslim' are synonymous and that Christian Arabs are therefore somehow apostates. This question of being an 'Arab' opens up a whole field of misunderstanding. Seen from the outside, as it were, all Arabic-speaking peoples are Arabs, but would a Berber, or a Sudanese, or even a Lebanese readily acknowledge that name? This is where the question of a knowledge - or ignorance - of history is important as a restraining influence on judgments and the expressions of judgment.



At the religious level, it is easy to think only in terms of Muslims and Christians. However, there are also great numbers of Hindus, Sikhs, and, with the low cost of Sri Lankan labour, also Buddhists. Hindus contribute a great deal to the economy of Gulf societies at all levels, professional, skilled, and unskilled, but, in falling outside the broad category of 'People of the Book', comprising Muslims, Christians and Jews, they are in theory, though not always in practice, looked at askance. They are as readily employed as anyone else if they have abilities or knowledge that are in demand. However, they do not pass the religious test of worshipping the one God, with the result that they are allowed a temple in one or two places, but for the most part they have no place to worship or to be cremated according to their custom when they die. You may see a Muslim shudder at the mention of a Sikh, but the fact remains that some are highly skilled and if they are needed they will be employed. Buddhists are an enigma, since they live by a philosophy more than a religion, but again, like all expatriates, they are tolerated if they provide what is looked for, in spite of being less than desirable on the religious front.



There is such a tangle of racism and religion that it is very hard to sort out the threads. Asians are often looked down upon and suffer as a consequence. This is partly racism, closely linked to the fact that some embassies have the means and the will to protect their citizens (those of the Philippines, for example), while other countries are more or less impotent when trying to protect them. The need many countries have for the remittances of their expatriate workers conditions their reactions to injustice or racist treatment on the part of the country where their people are working. Contempt is naturally bred by the knowledge that some people can be treated badly without fear of bad publicity or reprisals. This is a vicious circle.



Well-Ordered Societies



Within Islam, Sunni-Shiite tensions are masked because of the great preponderance of Sunnism in the Gulf. Such tension exists openly in Bahrain, due to an older immigrant population, and may exist in the local population of Dubai, given the number of Iranian families who have been naturalised, but if it does, it is not visible to outsiders.



On the whole, the societies of the Gulf are just, peaceful, and well-ordered. Europe and the United States have suffered enough self-doubt and difference of opinion in relation to immigration to understand the threat immigration can be or can seem to be. There is a difference, mentioned above, in that immigrants in the Gulf do not come to settle definitively, as they presumably do in Europe. It does not take much imagination to see how the vast numbers needed to fuel the needs of the development of the economy on a broader basis than oil can be a terrible threat to a society whose fragility can be measured in numbers alone. All societies wish to safeguard their integrity. A cornerstone of the integrity of these societies is Islam, which is, no doubt, being profoundly changed. Will changes provoke such unease that this unease will spark a violent reaction?



To return to the beginning of this article, I should state again that things are different in different countries. Oman, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia cannot in any way - even in religion - be thought of in exactly the same way. However, there are common traits which are somehow close to what I have tried to describe. Maybe I should have taken more into account the historical fact that the tribal societies of the Arabian peninsula, by trade and warfare, have been in contact with the East (India) as well as with the West (the Mediterranean Sea and North-East Africa) for as long as we know. There has also been a long history of relations with Great Britain, bound, in the case of the Trucial States (the present UAE), by treaty. Looking at some faces you may still see the traces of this involvement in the currents of history, even though most of the time it was certainly not the free choice of the people but the outcome of the will of the stronger party. Yet: is this not still the case today?




(1) The Gulf Co-operation Council, a community of international co-operation to which the Gulf countries belong (translator's note).

Stay up to date: sign up for our newsletter

For insights and analysis subscribe to our biannual journal