The Gulf Between East and West

Listener 15 April, 2000

Keywords Globalisation & Trade;

The Americans who first drilled for Arabian Gulf oil in the 1950s smoked tobacco. Despite an Islamic prohibition, the locals took up the habit, which steadily spread across the country. (Today lung cancer rates in the oil regions of Saudi Arabia are about double the national average, which is climbing.)

Thus modernization, the introduction of new technologies, was linked with westernization, the Western European and North American ways of doing things. Many non-Western countries (and the New Zealand Maori) struggle with the connection. Does modernization inevitably mean that one is committed to western modes of behavior and values, or is it possible to modernize and maintain a degree of cultural independence? Do we all end up as Disneyland?

Saudi Arabia, home of the two most holy Islamic shrines at Makkah and Madinah is one of the countries attempting to resist this convergence. While Western nations are typically secular states (often with nominal Christian links), the Saudis are keen to maintain an Islamic nation, intolerant of polytheism and atheism (and Marxism), and barely acknowledging the monotheistic Christians, Jews, and Zoroastrians.

Consequently, five times of the day, much of the secular life closes down while Moslems face Makkah and pray. (Even hotel rooms have an arrow pointing the direction.) Some of the mutawah, the Islamic fundamentalists, work with the civil police to enforce the Islamic laws. Public notices issued by the Society for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice state “women are obliged to be modest and wear Abaya [a long black gown] and head cover in shopping areas and public places.” A religious column in the English language newspaper solemnly intoned, “Nothing is more devastating to the fabric of a nation than wanton promiscuity.” (No mention of nuclear weapons, environmental implosion, or public dishonesty.) European type restaurants were raided on St Valentines Day, to check couples were married. (After all it celebrates a Christian erotic festival doesn’t it?) That morning they had confiscated all the red roses from florists, much to the annoyance of devout Islamic married women, who appreciated a little romance from their devout Islamic husbands.

Women are not allowed to drive cars. (It is said that the traffic police would not know how to speak to a woman with no male relative in attendance.) The result is that half a million immigrant workers act as drivers, while many male Saudi office workers go home at 2pm to pick up their children from school. (Yes, some women work and even pursue careers. But they face handicaps.)

It is the women, in their abayas, who are most obviously affected. One gets a sense of their situation from reading the fiction of Hannah al Shayk and Nine Parts Desire by Australian journalist, Geraldine Brook (The title refers to an Islamic statement: “Almighty God created sexual desire in ten parts. Then he gave nine parts to women and one part to men.”.) But it, and al-Shaykh’s novels did not prepare me for the sight of a ten year old girl walking athletically along the top of a parapet, not far from her almost immobile mother wearing the fully veiled dress which her daughter she would don in a few years.

Given the laws of thermodynamics, one may doubt whether “girls can do anything”, but celebrate that young New Zealand girls have almost the same opportunities as their brothers. It is rare for differences in social circumstances to mean an absolute superiority of one option over the other, so there may be some advantages in the Saudi arrangements. It is just that I was unable to talk to any veiled women to find out what they were. (The unveilled, with scarves, to whom I spoke, said the situation reflected Arab rather than Islamic values. Not all Islamic countries are so restrictive.)

A frequent conversation topic is the degree to which Saudi Arabia is socially and politically stable. Some fear an uprising by religious zealots, as occurred in Iran in 1979. Others worry about the sort of breakdown which has occurred in Russia. No doubt there are those who pine for the Marxist revolution. But the Kingdom has thus far proved remarkably stable, probably as a consequence of the Saudi royal family’s skillful management of the oil income and the mutawah, and the middle class’s fears of the alternatives.

But modernization involves change. An extremely cosmopolitan member of the Shouria (the privy council which advises the King) suggested the economic modernization was ahead of the social changes, but they will catch up. (A devout Moslem, he interrupted our meeting to pray.) My guess is that women will have a key role in the change. It is difficult to believe that today’s little girls are going to tolerate the lives their mothers lead. It is not even clear that their mothers will either.

Will the outcome be convergence (and the wanton promiscuity of the West the mutawah fear)? Or will the Saudis be able to forge a distinctive culture using the modern technologies of the West without having to adopt its values? I am intrigued at the possibility of a non-oppressive state based on spiritual principles. If the Saudis do not follow a fully Western path, they may resolve some of the great social questions in distinctive ways, from which the West can learn. My intuition though, is that they will fail. Thus far they have been unsuccessful in resisting tobacco.

A companion article is Postcard from Arabia