Creating the Nationally Imagined Community

Sarah Rogers

Popular Culture and Political Identity in the Arab Gulf States
Alamoud Alsharekh and Robert Springborg, eds.
SAQI Books in association with London Middle East Institute, SOAS, 2008, 206 pp.

“Popular Culture and Political Identity in the Arab Gulf States” is a collection of 10 essays, the result of two conferences on the Gulf organized by the London Middle East Institute. The first, held in February 2005, focused on family and kinship. The outcome of the first conference was the publication of “The Gulf Family.” Discussions over the need to document the Gulf’s “distinctive culture” – in contrast to images of the region as either “backward,” or “super modern,” – prompted a second conference. “Popular Culture and Political Identity in the Arab Gulf States” is the outcome that conference.

For the most part, the authors represent individuals intimately knowledgeable with the region: professors of sociology, Middle East politics, anthropology and political science at local universities as well as directors of heritage and education centers, and board members of various academic and professional organizations associated with the Gulf and the larger Middle Eastern region – and a poet based in Saudi Arabia. One might expect therefore a more nuanced reading of the various cultural, national, religious, political, class and dynastic identities at work in the Gulf. Instead, the reader is confronted by a series of essays that picture a region distinctly defined by the discovery of oil. Previous to the 1970s, life is generally classified as traditional while subsequent life is characterized as consumer-driven in a global economy that has eroded past values.

The first four essays examine the use of heritage in the official creation of a national identity. In “Heritage and Cultural Nationalism in the United Arab Emirates,” Fred H. Lawson and Hasan M. al-Naboodah discuss the Oral History Project, initiated by the Zayed Centre for Heritage and History in al-Ain under the patronage of Sheikh Sultan bin Zayed al-Nahayan, the UAE’s deputy prime minister and president of the Emirates Heritage Club. Drawing on approximately 400 oral histories of elders in the community, the authors explore the ways in which the Centre collects and nationalizes memory, thereby codifying a particular notion of heritage.

In “Place and Space in the Memory of United Arab Emirates Elders,” Nadia Rahman also draws on a series of interviews conducted with elderly citizens in the UAE in order to underscore a generational tension: “pride in development and wealth versus nostalgia for the past and simple life.” Sulayman Khalaf documents Kuwait’s “invention of tradition” through the inauguration of the annual pearl-diving festival and the Kuwaiti Seaman’s Day. As does Rahman, Khalaf highlights a generational divide in terms of lifestyles and values that chronologically rests on the 1970’s discovery of oil. With less emphasis on critical analysis and more on straightforward documentation, Mohammed A. Alkhozai presents several historic sites in Bahrain that are undergoing restoration in his essay, “An Aspect of Cultural Development in Bahrain: Archaeology and the Restoration of Historical Sites.”

The remaining essays are more diverse in their choice of subject although all are united by an interest in the creation of a nationally imagined community and its accompanying identity. Nimah Ismail Nawwab discusses her interests in poetry in “The Social and Political Elements that Drive the Poetic Journey.” Abdullah Baahood analyzes the role of sports in Gulf culture with a focus on Dubai’s use of hosting sporting events as a means “to engage with the rest of the world, to showcase their modern culture, express their national identity and project their self-image.”

In “Media as Social Matrix in the United Arab Emirates,” Nada Mourtada-Sabbah, Mohammed al-Mutawa, John W. Fox and Tim Walters examine the ways in which the contemporary media promote a set of values that produce a consumer-based society in direct contrast to the extended kinship network of previous generations. Through a comparative approach, Christopher Davidson examines the possible futures of Dubai and Abu Dhabi based on their economic development plans. In “Debates on Political Reform in the Gulf: The Dynamics of Liberalizing Public Spaces,” Amr Hamzawy argues that since the 1990s the Gulf has witnessed a “relative expansion of freedom and a growing degree of pluralism,” as a result of post-9/11 pressure to democratize by the West and the forces of globalization. In the final selection, “Gulf Societies: Coexistence of Tradition and Modernity,” Lubna Ahmed al-Kazi considers the effects of changes in education, healthcare, work and politics following the establishment of welfare states. These last three essays represent the most interesting of the bunch given their in-depth analysis and a refusal to reinforce the tradition-modernity binary that seems to haunt the collection otherwise.

“Popular Culture and Political Identity in the Arab Gulf States” provides an introductory resource to readers interested in the Gulf. One only wishes that this truly fascinating region – with all the current educational and cultural projects that have caught both the world’s attention and investments – wasn’t presented as so one-sided.

This review appears in Al Jadid, Vol. 15, no. 61 (2009)

Copyright (c) 2009 by Al Jadid