Following US President Donald Trump’s first visit to the Middle East, it’s a good time to take stock and refresh our collective memories about past foreign policy decisions (those of the USA as well as others) and the effects they’ve had on the ground across this vast region. Learning from past mistakes certainly seems prudent since current events in the Middle East occupy a prominent place in the discussions that determine the foreign and domestic policies of Western governments these days.
In this series of articles, I want to address three areas: 1) the collective Western image of the Middle East and its people, 2) observations I’ve formed based on academic research and discussions with both locals and expats who call this region home, and 3) the effects of past and current Western influence and interference in the governments, and therefore the lives of the people, all across this region.
Images of Life in the Middle East
For the average Westerner, a discussion of the Middle East may conjure up visions of vast stretches of sand desert dotted with oil wells or rich sheiks driving at the speed of light down a straight ribbon of highway in a new Ferrari. While images such as these are evident in the oil and gas rich Arabian Gulf cities of the UAE, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, they are far from the norm in much of the region.
Many of you have heard or read reports about the almost incomprehensibly rapid rise to international prominence of the United Arab Emirates city of Dubai, which has focused on developing city superlatives over the past two decades and is now one of the world’s top tourist destinations. It’s also the location of the world’s tallest building, largest shopping mall and theme parks, and boasts the world’s second busiest international airport. However, this is a region of stark contrasts, where the futuristic glass and steel skylines of Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Doha contrast sharply with the ancient stone-walled city of Jerusalem and its importance to the three ‘Abrahamic’ religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
The Middle East was home to some of the world’s earliest civilizations, and archaeologists list Erbil in Iraq and Aleppo and Damascas in war-torn Syria as three of the world’s oldest continually inhabited settlements. The physical variety of cityscapes in this region runs the full gamut from the world’s most modern and futuristic to its most ancient. Since geography colors our lives in ways we’re often not even aware, this diversity in city development should be seen as representative of the differences to be found in the people and their lives all through this region.
The second visual that will inevitably pop into the minds of many Westerners is one of Islam, closely followed by or combined with horrific media images of ‘terror’ attacks, usually ones perpetrated by outcast individuals in a Western context. This is the image most often seen on Western TV newscasts, as each new attack seems to generate more media attention and sow more confusion and fear within the general population.
Recently, two separate attacks in the UK—Manchester and London—have featured prominently on Western media outlets. With each attack, we listen more closely, often hoping to hear the suspects have Arab-sounding names in order to insure they’re not one of ‘us’. Blaming someone else for all of humanity’s failings is a popular scenario these days in Western governments as well as in the lives of many citizens.
Diversity Defies Stereotypes
Neither of these images of the Middle East resonates in my mind, having witnessed this diversity firsthand during the more than eight years I spent teaching university students in multiple cities in the Sultanate of Oman as well as in Iraqi Kurdistan. This diversity shouldn’t surprise us, given the tumultuous history of this region as a global trading crossroads and one of the most fought over areas of the world due to its geographic location, situated between the historic powers of East Asia and Europe, yet also close to Africa’s valuable resources.
This strategic location, which meant I was only a short flight away from three continents, is one of the things I enjoyed most about living in the Middle East. Maybe my thinking was clouded by my Biblical upbringing, but I clearly remember feeling as if I was at the center of creation—where civilization on Earth began and where Biblical prophecy purports it may end.
Given the obvious diversity that one need only scratch the surface to find, it’s quite puzzling that the world’s major media organizations often paint this region with one brush as if it’s all the same regarding customs, beliefs and behavior, without providing any further context. The image most often presented by Western media outlets is the powerful and alarming one of self-proclaimed Muslims beheading Westerners or carrying out violent attacks against innocent civilians in a Western country.
While a majority of each Middle East state’s citizens indeed share a form of Islam as well as the Arabic language, there’s an incredible amount of variety found in the way each state’s institutions work, as well as in the personal temperament, beliefs, habits, desires and feelings of nationalism shared (or not shared) by the people within each given state. Sound bites rule in our digital age and many of us are too stressed out in our attempt to keep up with the Jones’ to take time to look beneath the surface of issues, or maybe we just don’t want to dwell on the uglier parts of our shared humanity which is a sentiment I can certainly identify with.
So, for purposes of simplification, and based on shared cultural heritage and historical background, I’m going to place the Arabian Gulf countries of Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar, the UAE, Oman and Yemen into one group, the ‘Levant’ countries of Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, Iraq and Palestine into a second and the countries of northern Africa that border the Mediterranean Sea—Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Algeria and Morocco—into a third, although Egypt may be considered the only country in this group that fits neatly into the Middle East’s geographic profile.
Of course, there are the outliers of Israel, Iran and Turkey that don’t fit into any of the above groups based on cultural and linguistic differences. And what about Afghanistan and Pakistan which often seem to get lumped into the Western Media’s Middle East category? Should we include these countries as part of this region? Historians and other academics can feel free to criticize my methods, but again, I’m trying to simplify the discussion of a region that defies classification on many levels, so bear with me here.
The Arabian Gulf
In the first group—the Arabian Gulf countries—the citizenry is primarily made up of former Bedouin tribes (although the descendants of Bedouin’s can be found in other ME countries as well) who lived (and continue to live) in extended family groups, and who were historically nomadic, navigating the region’s vast sand deserts on the backs of camels. Along the coasts of this region, other groups—among them merchant tribes—plied the seas in small ships known as dhows, trading with India and the Far East. Since Bedouin tribes moved often, depending on water and food resources, they had very little use for artifacts, and therefore rarely developed arts and crafts that didn’t serve a utilitarian purpose.
This is the region where Islam was born and from which it spread in the 7th Century C.E. carrying with it many of the Bedouin tribal traditions. Other than calligraphy, oral traditions, utilitarian objects and the production of the Holy Koran, there are very few examples of an artistic heritage being passed down from one Gulf generation to the next. In ancient times, the Arabian Gulf region played a key role in the trade of locally collected frankincense as well as providing a short over-land bridge for transporting goods between East Asia and Europe. As world trade patterns changed and new shipping canals opened, these desert lands were largely forgotten and considered irrelevant until oil was discovered in the early part of the 20th century.
The countries of the second group, the area often historically dubbed “The Levant”, were either part of or neighbored the great historic civilizations of the Sumerians, the Phoenicians and the Babylonians in the areas of what are today Israel, Palestine, Lebanon, Jordan, Syria and Iraq. Along with the Greek, Roman, Egyptian and Persian civilizations, all these at least get a cursory mention in high school history classes because most Western education systems, as well as civic institutions, draw inspiration from Greek philosophy, medicine, and law. The Greeks built on what they learned by trading with these earlier cultures in the region, therefore, we can say there’s a significant link between the way Western institutions have been organized and the great ancient civilizations of this second Middle East sub-region which is (and has been) the scene of so much chaos and human tragedy. This is the region that continued making strides in the arts, medicine, science and literature while Europe languished in ignorance and death during the Dark Ages, roughly from around 500-1000 CE.
Egypt and North Africa
The third group consists of all the countries of North Africa which border the Mediterranean Sea. This vast region stretches the breadth of the African continent and was settled by a variety of groups who developed independently, from the Berbers in the west (what we now know as Morocco) to the Egyptians in the east. For centuries, this area was under the rule of the Roman Empire which spread its way of life along with the knowledge and philosophy of the Ancient Greeks. Islam arrived in this region a bit later, but quickly spread via conquest and trade routes. Each of these states is large geographically and separated from the remainder of the African continent by the vast sands of the Sahara Desert. With the exception of Egypt, I haven’t had the opportunity to visit this region, and therefore without direct personal experience in these cultures, I will refrain from commenting on past or current affairs in this third group of countries.
In my next post, I’ll write about my impressions (as a Western expat) of the people and rapid changes sweeping the first two regions of the Middle East. And please remember, I’m simply presenting my own personal observations based on my experience living, working and traveling widely across this region. I welcome citizens of the Middle East, as well as long-time expats, to feel free to offer differing opinions and additional comments. This is exactly what I’d like to see this blog become: a platform for presenting a variety of viewpoints about topics that have an impact on our collective daily lives.