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Sheikhs Not Stirred: Arab Sandstorm Through The UAE Prism

By Farzana Versey

27 February, 2011

While the Arab world is experiencing the snowballing effect, people are chucking snow balls at each other in Dubai’s malls. Just when the Jasmine Revolution overthrew Ben Ali in Tunisia, pulse points were touched with the fragrance of jasmine in the stores of the United Arab Emirates that have no inclination for any other kind of flower power.

The Dubai Shopping Festival (DSF), an annual pilgrimage for retail therapy, has just concluded and reportedly there was a 142 per cent increase in sales at some outlets and electronic goods sold over 40 per cent more than they ever have. Brochures talk about the man of vision who wrote on water. It is supposedly a line from a poem by the ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum. Some of the palm islands may be sinking, but that has not prevented the feel-good factor from permeating.

It would have been easy for the kings and princes of the seven emirates to play god and become deified caricatures. But they have been smart enough to realise that they cannot walk on water, so as a consequence chances of their crucifixion are dim.

As a fairly regular visitor to the UAE, I noticed on my last trip three months ago that most construction activity has stopped; cranes stood like ugly art installations and workers slept on cardboard sheets, their bright orange overalls contrasting with the predominant grey of the uniform atrium facades of tall towers. Hoardings still spoke of bespoke homes.

The papers did report on the plight of workers, of incidents of rape, of couples caught kissing. But as one of the junior-level workers in the service industry told me, “Don’t expect to read stories about major crimes.” The problem is that the major crimes are primarily committed due to the outside trade, just as the suffering is the burden the expatriates, who constitute over 60 per cent of the population, have to bear.

This is what will save the sheikhs. There cannot be a people’s movement when the people are not your own, do not have citizenship rights and have to renew their residence permits regularly.

* * *

Pause for a while over the terms being bandied about currently in the areas of strife: “People’s movement”, “Arab World”, “Middle-East reforms”, “End of Despots”, “Youth anger”, “Revolt of the poor”. The voyeurs do a finger count of “who next”. Or, more appropriately, what regime falls next. In these heated times, they put all the ingredients in a pot and wait for them to simmer, quite forgetting that each component has a specific flavour. In this case, it is the masses rather than the gourmet intellectuals who can tell the difference.

The ‘Arab world’ only works as nomenclature, much as Europe or Asia does. Islam may be the binding factor but the manner in which the religion is projected differs in each of these countries. The fear of pigeonholing is not because the theologians will take over but for such a perception that is prompted by the outside world. This would give and has given the military more powers than it ever had, and it is pertinent to note that some of these ousted leaders have had army training and experience themselves. Therefore, the people’s protest has given way to a sneaky military coup or waiting-in-the-wings mullahs. Who will benefit the most from these ‘stopgap’ regimes? Any die-hard conspiracy theorist will tell you that it is the West, mainly the US.

We have already read about the unemployed leaderless youth. Without a leader, and a mission, this would be akin to a non-worker’s strike. Protest is not a job. There is a sense of sadness when some carry placards that state: “Sorry for the inconvenience, but we’re building Egypt.” Who are the ‘we’? Those burning effigies, stamping on portraits or those who stood by the revolution and yet gathered outside the Mostafa Mahmoud mosque asking the people to apologise to the ousted leader? As one of them said, “We are for change and call for the new democratic state of Egypt, yet our president, father, and grandfather Hosni Mubarak should be dignified.”

It will be difficult for those not aware of these mores to understand such sentiments where despotism and paternalism are indistinguishable. If we wish to be more objective then it might be likened to the Stockholm Syndrome, except that the captive are the citizens who in fact pay for and prop up their captor. After 30 years, the need for change is natural, but is it germane? Most of the population is below 30 and they can be said to have been born to Mubarak. They have no experience of reforms or of change. Their concept of nationalism thus far had been obeisance to the leader. Besides, when there is talk of reformation it must be clarified that it has to do with a transparent form of governance and not to alter the cultural ethos. None of these nations in turmoil could be considered backward.

* * *

I know people from Egypt, Syria, Morocco, Jordan, Lebanon and some have become friends. One day as I sipped coffee at a Costa outlet in Dubai the Moroccan waiter got chatting and when I asked him where he was from he said, “Morocco” and then paused, “You know Morocco?” Not many did then. Tunisia rhymed with Asia and there is still confusion over what constitutes the Middle East and North Africa. There are revolutions going on and we must all join in seems to be the anthem. The outsourcing of empathy has a faulty dimension and is disingenuous.

The crisis is about the streets, and that will not change radically. Most of the rulers are westernised, including in their mode of dress. Civil strife has always existed throughout the region, whether intra-Arab or inter-Arab, the Gulf War being the first eyeball grabbing one. It is a bit hasty and facile to believe, as some commentators will have us do, that Al Jazeera has replaced CNN. The legitimising of the former denotes the true nature of how these revolutions are being pandered to, for no one was ever in awe of Al Jazeera’s admirable coverage of the way some western countries overpowered Arab nations.

If we take the recent example of Libya, there are reports trickling in of how the Boston-based Monitor Group was paid for image-building exercises of the country and its leader. The consultancy firm is linked to defence strategists as well as the intellectually elite Harvard Business School. This has been the scenario always with the US and many other western powers that make certain to ally with the right Arab authorities.

Colonel Muammar Gaddafi is writing his own elegy by declaring that he is not interested in ruling anymore. This after his forces unleashed the worst form of clamping down of protest in the present situation. However, with his Bond girl-type bodyguards and his own tragic-comic persona that veered from a Che Guevara get-up to an African tribal chief’s, he was no purist of the Arab cause.

What will any of these movements achieve besides dethroning the atrophied who even denied people any coherent contemporary history, except as an ode to themselves? The emperors were permitted to not only be fully clothed but leave with the riches they had accumulated in their role as benign dictators. The sons and daughters, the ones who are fighting against their poverty, did not demand that the wealth be returned. There are no court cases, no appeals to the United Nations. In some ways, this is being viewed as a completely indigenous uprising. It is, but only because no big power wants to dirty its hands in the mud. We are not talking about WMDs or Israel. At this level, pontificating serves a more noble purpose, which is why Obama Incorporated asked the rulers to quit and make way for a smooth transition. There cannot be a smooth transition in chaos. For the conglomerate, only oil rules. They know which Arab country to keep lubricated. It is precious that Gaddafi has said that Al Qaeda was behind the mob fury unleashed in his country. Is this what the people want? Another bunch of troops on their land looking for Osama? Was he diverting attention or drawing attention and subtle parallels?

He will get asylum, a strange word for him and the others who keep many an economy thriving with their funds, anywhere in the West or Saudi Arabia, the supra Arabic power that is beyond both the Arab world as well as the Occident.

* * *

Against this backdrop, we have the UAE. The rulers dress traditionally and while many mock the mimicking of the West, including a “Las Vegas clone” indictment, the fact is that Dubai, primarily, has worked the global village in an almost ironical fashion by creating a whole one within its territory. Hollywood, Bollywood, industrial houses, fashion houses, even politicians from everywhere have bought mansions that look like their own houses and cities. You cannot get sharper than this.

Mortada, an Egyptian, had tasted life in New York and this was the next best thing. His clothes and deportment did not reveal a single crease that his life was full of. He had swapped one kind of indigence for a lesser one. Egypt was home, where he’d return to someday. When I called up my Syrian friend Hakkam and asked him if he planned to go to Damascus, where his family was, he replied in his usual flirtatious manner, “Wallah, you want holiday with me?” I briefly mentioned about the news stories and all he said was, “Too busy here.”

“What are you busy with?”

“Making highlight, lowlight, blow-dry.” He is a stylist. And a pragmatist. His protest was to leave the still life, even if all it ended up being was sleeping in a dark dingy room and taking annual holidays home.

As in most parts of the world, the financial crisis hit the Emirates too and people left behind their cars at airports because they had no money to pay back loans. But many decided to stick it out. The local Emiratis won’t rebel because they are either well-settled or they have options elsewhere. Many are or consider themselves to be a part of the various royal families. These royal families, unlike the leaders elsewhere, are happy enough to be on postage stamps, as portraits in almost every establishment. They keep getting fantastical ideas and invite the best people to give shape to their vision.

Embittered immigrants – flotsam and fiefdom alike – make their cocoons here where anyone can become a chameleon.

Farzana Versey is a Mumbai-based author-columnist. She can be reached at http://farzana-versey.blogspot.com/




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