Oil Wealth ... The Other Side

Oil Wealth ... The Other Side

As explorer, colonialist, researcher and settler, the West has influenced the creation of a negative image of the communities in the East it believed to be less civilized and developed. Citizens have equally been influenced by such an image, and they see themselves through Western eyes. Unsound views have become so common that they have been held as all but facts. Among the familiar images is the one regarding oil wealth in the Arabian Gulf countries which has been built up since oil was discovered there and made use of over half a century ago. However, there has been a stereotyped image of the Gulf communities as tribal, consumerist, profligate and backward. But, as we ponder on the march of this region celebrating decades of independence, let s ask : Has the Gulf squandered its oil wealth? Has it been invested, albeit partially, in its development project? Let s consider the other side of oil wealth.

Europeans view the East as a region which starts just beyond Belgrade (Serbia), i.e. outside the Western industrial progress. The conception of the East has expanded to include countries and cultures stretching from North Africa to Japan, in the Far East. The East thus does not refer to geography alone but rather to all European attitudes to non-European strangers. There is no room here to show the negative, unfair attitudes to each nation, country and community.

Such a stereotyped image of the region s peoples has been built up in the West whose powerful media machine has long been describing the Gulf communities as consumerist, extravagant, nouveau riche and wasteful; neglecting education and infrastructure and adopting obsolete political systems a gloomy view reflecting systematic mismanagement of wealth and financial resources.

A Western counter-media war

The West went mad when oil was used as a weapon for the first time for the sake of an Arab war. The 1973/1974 winter witnessed the birth of a Western counter-media war which created such a negative image of the Gulf and people, oil owners, who covered the peoples of the North with frost. Unfortunately, such a stereotyped, bitter image which is common in the West, particularly in the press, cinema and other media, has become common in the Arab world as well!

Pondering on the realities vis à vis this stereotyped image shows that Arabian Gulf countries, some of which are not more than thirty or forty years old, measured from the perspective of the age and progress of human communities, have achieved outstanding levels of social and economic development as well as in the areas of education and culture. Examples of this in terms of quality and quantity are clearly seen in schools and universities, as well as economic and financial institutions, and include cultural centres and institutions, which are too prominent to miss. These play a key role in the development of Gulf communities.

The Kuwaiti society s experiment is worth citing here. It supported education, e.g., long before the oil boom. The merchant community bore the costs of building schools and public libraries in the country and even schools abroad, such as the Kuwaiti school in India. Some merchants sent their children to study in a number of Arab capitals, including Cairo, Baghdad, Damascus and Beirut and at some universities in India. As soon as the government received oil revenues, it started building modern schools, hospitals and medical centres and sent a large number of students on scholarships in many world capitals in Europe and the USA as well as pretigious Arab universities, even after opening its first university in the mid-1960s.

Early patronage of culture and arts

Kuwait has early encouraged arts, which helped the creation of a prominent theatre and musical movement by icons of Arab drama who taught at the Higher Institute of Dramatic Arts there. That led to the creation of a number of theatre companies in the region. A musical arts institute has also been opened in Kuwait, and the establishment of an academy of arts has now been approved. Today s Gulf growing drama production activity and popularity in all Arab countries reflects the high level of quality drama has achieved in the Gulf in terms of script, direction and acting.

This early patronage of culture and arts helped develop printers and publishers and organize an international book far in the 1970s, in addition to notable political, literary and art press as well as public institutions for arts and literature, culture ministries and private institutions.

As in Kuwait, the discovery of oil has helped step up the pace of civilization and human development in other Gulf and Arabian countries.

To shed the image of the Gulf as just oil-rich, extravagant and wasteful of wealth, we have to fairly look at what is going on here and shed light not only on the growing economic, business and stock exchange activity, but on science, culture and education infrastructure as well.

There is a significant, dramatic increase in the number of schools, institutes and universities in the Gulf. In Saudi Arabia, e.g., higher education started with the opening of King Saudi University in the late 1950s, and, according to official statistics, there are 34 government universities now, the latest of which is King Abdullah University of Science and Technology for postgraduate studies and research, in addition to private universities.

Branches of a number of prestigious American universities have been opened in Kuwait, UAE and Bahrain, as well as in Qatar, with its pioneering experiment in establishing a complex of world-famous universities : Carnegic Mellon, Georgetown, Texas A & M, Virginia Commonwealth and Weill Cornell Medical College. UAE has also established branches of such universities. These include New York in Abu Dhabi, Middlesex (Britain) and Southern Quensland (Australia) in the Knowledge Village in Dubai.

Promoting the culture of the printed word

Support for cultural projects, particularly in the area of translation, is growing. Signs of this are clearly seen in UAE with its worthwhile projects to support translation from other languages, such as Kalima , and projects to support Arab translators, such as Torjuman . Prestigious Gulf prizes are awarded for several branches of knowledge, culture and science: fiction, poetry, drama, cinema, press, and prize winners are both Arabs and non-Arabs. These include Kuwait Foundation for the Advancement of Sciences Prize, King Faisal Prize, Shaikh Zayed Prizes, Alowayes Prize and Albabtain Prize. Another aspect of the promotion of culture is the wide spread of book fairs in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Sharjah and Muscat. These book fairs attract major Arab and non-Arab publishers and stress the role of culture in these societies as reflected in the large number of literary works as well as in the areas of politics, sociology, research and media, along with the drama movement which flourished through festivals and drama companies with their diverse approaches and drama techniques.

Sport and art for human development

Furthermore, Qatar s hosting of the Asian Games a few years ago, and its successful 2022 World Cup bid must be looked at as a social development effort which will influence all Gulf and Arab societies, as sport has today become an essential source of support for human development worldwide and is closely related to youth welfare and physical and mental ability development. In addition, sport promotion plays a key role in supporting youth welfare institutions and encouraging voluntary community service work. In this way, Qatar s strong bid for the World Cup comes in the context of a development approach it adopted years ago.

This approach has clearly appeared in the foundation of the Qatar Foundation for Education, Science and Community Development, which supports private educational institutions and universities and opens national libraries, and has set up a joint publishing house with Bloomsbury publishers (Britain) to promote Arabic culture worldwide and encourage translation. In addition, this requires considerable effort to develop Qatar s infrastructure : increasing the number of service and property facilities, expansion of the road and bridge network and boosting travel to the neighbouring countries, in addition to the ambitious metro project which will link all parts of Doha.

As far as music is concerned, Oman has early established the Royal Symphonic Orchestra, reflecting Oman s interest in Western classical music and music arts in general, as it had earlier established the Oman Traditional Music Centre, as Qatar did in 2008 establishing the Qatar Philharmonic Orchestra. The Gulf song community now combines distinguished composers, singers and musicians.

In the area of the arts, the Gulf region has long been encourag-ing art and traditional and modern art galleries and museums. Qatar, e.g., has opened the Grand Islamic Museum, one of Doha s architectural landmarks, and two months ago, Doha witnessed the opening of the most important Arab art museum, which is unique in that it houses the works of all Arab artists, dead and alive, a sign of interest in visual culture.

Similarly, UAE has established the first branch of the Louvre museum outside Paris. There is an active movement in opening private art galleries and exhibitions, a sign of a growing awareness of visual culture and art. These ambitious infrastructures projects are not confined to culture but cover desert development and greening and the growing of such crops that provide food security in Saudi Arabia and UAE, where there is a shortage of water for agriculture.

It may safely be said that these ambitious plans and projects and an earlier effort in the 1960s and 1970s have actually produced positive results, e.g., the status of women in the Gulf region. Women now occupy prominent academic positions and are MPs in Kuwait, Bahrain, UAE, Oman and Qatar.

Taking into account that oil price rises in the 1970s marked the beginning of the oil boom, these rapid developments which are not more than forty years old are part of the overall well-developed political action in the region and he presence of such responsible leadership that guided the region towards development and progress. Examples of this include Kuwait s early experiment in democracy which started with the adoption of a constitution and election of a parliament, which has reflected positively on political awareness in the region, as well as Oman s carefully calculated five-year development plans in all fields, the results of which are too many to count.

An experiment in Arab unity

The experiment of establishing the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) came in the context of early political and social awareness in the region, which has played a key role in the follow-up to the development process in each country in the region depending on its respective conditions. According to official economic statistics, public expenditure on infrastructure projects in the GCC states will amount to 535 billion two trillion dollars over the next ten years to 2020. This shows that the region is entering a new stage in development depending mainly on its qualified nationals, fulfilling its growing ambitions, building on he achievements of the recent decades.

As everybody feels, this will reflect on the region in the form of joint service projects for the benefit of the region s nationals and expatriates, such as railway lines for carrying passengers and cargo and promoting investments and services for GCC residents.

The above projects are just examples of infrastructural development in the areas of education, culture and human development in the Gulf region, indicating that there is an actual development base in the areas of culture, science and knowledge which relies on the region s individuals, designed to achieve great progress in education and culture infrastructure envisaged by most of the elite in these societies decades before the discovery of oil. These societies will achieve more impressive progress, thanks to the rational use of oil revenues, which will have a beneficial impact on the areas: society, health, research, science and sport in the Gulf at large during the next fifteen years.

However, no real progress can in fact be achieved without occasional self-criticism and evaluation to overcome difficulties and avoid failures and explore the future and the region s new objectives and aspirations. Gulf societies, like all others, certainly have social, investment and education weaknesses, and today s ambitions for progress and development based on scientific principles in most Gulf societies will put, or should put, pending political and other problems under investigation so as to be tackled in the context of the progress the region is aspiring to in the near future.

But, as we assess these weaknesses, we have to look at the other side, away from the stereotyped image which has been built up to underrate our achievements, which are not few, measured by the nation s age.


Sulaiman Al-Askary

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