Have been busy travelling so not posted anything for a while. But I just got a great mail about cultural matters in the Gulf from one of our blog readers, Martin Kralik, and quote it straight. Thanks Martin – saved me a job 😉
This blog has posited the powerful yet all-too-often overlooked idea that most of the tangible, material aspects of our societies are physical manifestations of our cultural values, beliefs and preferences. Societies that are going through economic hyper-growth and rapid change offer particularly good illustrations of this point. For instance, the Arab countries of the Gulf region are in the process of reshaping dramatically their infrastructures, urban landscapes, and lifestyles.
For observers of cross-cultural interaction, these developments provide the added bonus of witnessing a constant stream of Western consultants, architects, planners and designers visiting the region. They come to share (and sell) advice on how to turn cities across the Gulf into ‘great cities’ that will attract more investment, tourism and talent.
More often than not, the advice, while well-meant, is rooted in heavily Western / Anglo-Saxon notions of what constitutes good urban planning and a well-functioning city. In fact, the more dramatic the ideas, the more comically they sometimes fall off the mark.
Let’s start with the Gulf’s most ubiquitous species – the car. On his visit to UAE, London’s former mayor Ken Livingstone had some simple, and much-publicized, advice for Dubai and Abu Dhabi: “Get rid of the cars.” Granted, global financial centres do typically require world-class public transportation systems. Similarly, a variation on London’s congestion charge may one day become a useful tool in battling UAE’s ever-growing traffic jams. But how likely are UAE residents to abandon their top-of-the-line LandRovers, RangeRovers and other SUVs in favour of public transport, once the option becomes available to them? My experience from living in UAE for the past 12 months would suggest: Not very.
The answer lies only as far as the minds and preferences of the local people: Not only is the motorized vehicle a useful transportation tool for large families and their maids, it is also a status symbol. The recent ‘global’ instinct to trade in the SUVs for smaller models, or switch to hybrid fuels, has had no impact on this part of the world: After all, petrol is cheap and recycling or environmental protection of any kind have never been a concept to begin with, at least as far as the middle-class consumer psyche is concerned. To accommodate the SUVs, the government has for the past 20 years built roads that would be considered illegally wide by international standards.
Much more so than in the West, the car projects the owner’s sense of power and machismo. Ever read about the Gulf’s traditional pastimes in an airline magazine? They include horse racing, camel racing, falcon racing… The list goes on. This is the stuff that has built a sense of masculinity in many generations of local men. Is it any surprise then that so many drivers think of the city roads as their racing track – beating traffic lights, speeding past schools and residential neighbourhoods, and honking pedestrians off the zebra crossing?
Beyond the infatuation with speed, the car offers a sense of separation and insulation – from the heat and dust of the streets; from the crowds of immigrant labourers who usually don’t share the local owner’s faith, race or language, let alone lifestyle; from the pedestrians’ random glances (to this end, most of the car windows are tinted [again – illegally, at least ‘on paper’] to protect the driver’s female offspring from unwanted attention).
A similar clash of cultures can be seen in discussions on public space, particularly shared spaces. Unsurprisingly, Western architects’ ideas in this area are strongly democratic and egalitarian: The more open space and public parks, the better. To their way of reasoning, what could be more joyous for a city than to have all its residents mix in the same space, regardless of creed and status? But, as is so often the case, ‘the reality doesn’t quite work that way.’ The harsh climate has always encouraged the affluent coffee aficionado to migrate indoors, to the latest and most opulent air-conditioned shopping mall. Men tend to fraternize in different establishments than women/families. In addition, there is a huge gap between locals and foreigners in spending power; among the locals, the civil servants are different from private sector employees in their working hours, dress code and dining habits. Looking at local people’s homes gives yet more clues: How likely is someone who chooses to live in a 12-bedroom villa, behind the high walls of a family compound, to embrace openness of the Western kind and mix freely with residents from all walks of life?…
Finally, why is it that with so much massive investment into new infrastructure and architecture, the new face of the oil-rich Gulf city is essentially the same from Dubai to Doha and Jeddah?… Why the same marinas, man-made islands, corniches and clock towers?… Are they the only artefacts that money can buy? Are there only a handful of architectural firms on hand to come up with the designs? No – they are reflection of what the people who live in these cities believe to be modern, luxurious and sophisticated. Coming as they are from the same, rather homogenous culture, the physical outcome of their dreams and ambitions is correspondingly homogenous.