The Burkini Ban

The Burkini Ban

OPINION

The Burkini Ban

How About We Start from Within?

Einas Alhamali

March 2019

In 2016, images of armed French officers forcing a woman to take off her burkini at the beach surfaced on the Internet. A burkini is a type of swimwear that covers the entire body and hair, suitable for hijabis. The officers were acting under the laws of their city, which, like other cities in France, had banned burkinis at the time.

The general response on social media was outrage, especially amongst Arabs and Muslims. When I saw the news, I was horrified, imagining myself forced to take off my protective layer under four men’s gazes. This incident was only one case that became viral; who knows how many more never reach the public eye?  

I was angry at France and their“secular” laws. I was angry at Islamophobic people. I could not imagine the anger and fear coursing through that woman’s body.

Little did I know that Islamophobia hides right under our noses.

Last summer, my family and I went on a vacation in the mountains of Lebanon. We had found the perfect hotel: antique décor, a big balcony, and cool, tranquil weather. At the reception, my mother asked about the pool. She needed to swim to keep her post-surgery arm from getting stiff. The receptionist answered, “Yes, of course. The pool is available if the men would like to swim.”

A moment of silence.

My mother gave a half-laugh. “And the women?”

The receptionist bit her lip and explained that burkinis were not allowed. We were almost too dumbfounded to respond. My mother had once told me that there were instances when she had not been allowed to swim in some hotels back in Syria either, but I thought that was a thing of the past. Surely, Arabs of different religions have reached a point of reconciliation? When it seems like the entire world stands against us, surely, we could at least support one another?

Why are private resorts in Arab countries banning the burkini, a sight that should be familiar considering the numbers of Muslims here?

But no. Over the next two days the receptionist and the manager asked us to please understand, it wasn’t their fault. They were only upholding “the hotel’s policy.” My father asked what the policy stated, and we tried to argue against it. Visitors must wear proper swimwear (invalid argument; burkinis are made of the same material as any other swimwear) that consists of one or two pieces (invalid argument; go ahead and Google images of burkinis; they’re usually two pieces with a head piece, but if you’re going to count the head piece then you should also count swimming caps, which would make bikinis three-piece swimsuits). 

And while the Lebanese government has its issues, this“policy” was not their doing. We found another hotel, only twenty-five minutes away by car, that allowed us to swim.

The case of the first hotel is not an isolated one. Friends have told me that this ban occurs in other Arab countries as well, such as Morocco and Egypt, where hijabis are not even allowed to sit on some private beaches. While the ban in France was under the name of secularism, these enterprises cited “hygienic reasons.” This excuse stems from a lack of knowledge—or maybe a lack of willingness to acknowledge—that women do not wear their own undergarments beneath the burkini. On the contrary, it often comes with its own swimming-suitable lining.

To put it into fewer words, both France and these private resorts in Arab countries were acting under a common incentive: prejudice.

Unlike France, however, the resorts were not following city laws. Their prejudice was the work of individuals.

In some ways, that’s scarier.

How can we expect other countries to respect our values when the same disrespect resides amongst us?

I find myself raising two questions I have yet to find an answer for: One, why are private resorts in Arab countries banning the burkini, a sight that should be familiar considering the numbers of Muslims here? Two, why are those situations not garnering social media attention?

I speak from personal experience. When the ban in France happened, my Facebook feed was flooded with the news; on the other hand, I only heard stories of the bans in Arab private resorts when I pitched this piece to my writing class.

I know that a national ban and individual cases of private enterprises are not on the same scale, but how can we expect other countries to respect our values when the same disrespect resides amongst us?

And it’s not like it’s impossible to ensure that hijabis are allowed to swim in private enterprises. In the United Arab Emirates, for example, I never have to worry about the matter. I can swim in pools and beaches, public or private, in a burkini—or a bikini, for that matter—and no one would bat an eye. I can even find places that allow women only, so that I feel more comfortable.

It’s going to take a collective effort to reproduce that freedom of swimwear in other Arab countries where some enterprises issue the ban. The change may start with a post on social media, or a review on the hotel’s website, or a report to the relative authorities.

But until then, whenever my family and I go on vacation, we will have to check beforehand whether burkinis are allowed.

 

 

Einas Alhamali is a Literature and Creative Writing student at NYU Abu Dhabi. She was born and raised in Syria but has also lived in Lebanon and the UAE. In her free time, she reads novels, watches anime, and anxiously solves 1000-piece puzzles.

FURTHER READING
Images of a City: Qasr Al Hosn Festival II

Images of a City: Qasr Al Hosn Festival II

Qasr al Hosn is in tension with itself. The professor sitting next to me put it this way: “I love the indigenous postmodernism of it all.” The student behind us, a junior from Canada, noted that many of the purported Emiratis doing handicrafts at the Qasr al Hosn Festival are in fact Omani or Saudi Bedouins who take part in the festival to earn a neat wad of cash that can see them through for a couple of months.

Every February, the Qasr al Hosn Festival showcases Emirati cultural traditions and heritage in a ten-day spectacle that lures out almost as many suburb dwellers as do the National Day celebrations on December 2. Many professors at NYU Abu Dhabi schedule outings to the festival with their classes: Some classes go because the festival touches on issues central to their course, others because the professor simply wants her students to leave the Saadiyat bubble behind and see the host culture first-hand. This particular tour was not part of a class trip, though, but rather an open-to-all event sponsored by NYUAD’s Office of Student Life for students who either had not seen the festival yet or who wanted to visit it again.

The festival grounds take up an entire city block many times the size of its New York City equivalent, but it lies empty and unused 355 days of the year. When the festival is not blocking Abu Dhabi’s main traffic arteries, it takes twenty to twenty-five minutes to reach Qasr al Hosn from NYU Abu Dhabi’s Saadiyat Island campus. Abu Dhabi is no stranger to Thursday night traffic congestion, but since this particular Thursday is the busiest day of the festival, we sit in anxiety-inducing traffic for seventy minutes before finally reaching the festival.

As our driver tries to dislodge us from the chasm he got us stuck in, we use the extra time on our hands to observe the endless flow of pedestrians on the sidewalk circling the festival grounds. People from what seems like every country in the world saunter around Qasr al Hosn. Everyone wears attire that complies with Sharia’s prescribed modesty, of course – the festival is run according to Sharia principles, and men and women pay the ten dirhams it costs to enter the festival grounds in separate booths – but the diversity of this crowd rivals any public space I have seen.

To those critics who insist that the UAE does not have any culture of its own, the fort and the festival it houses each year provides strong counterevidence. As I try to hear my own thoughts over the sound of a nearby razafat dance (known to most people as ‘that Emirati men’s dance with sticks’), it seems clear that the UAE does have culture, and that its citizens are proud of that culture. If only my native Denmark made so concerted an effort to showcase our culture every year and have a festival that unifies the country, as this one does. Qasr al Hosn Festival’s unifying effect is not just figurative: a man I know commutes from Fujairah to Abu Dhabi and back – a two-and-a-half-hour drive each way – to take part in the festival.

A more sophisticated way to phrase one objection many critics raise about the UAE is that the UAE’s culture today is not the culture of the pre-oil Trucial States. True, but why should it be? Such an objection reminds me of a passage in Kwame Anthony Appiah’s book Cosmopolitanism (2013) that takes on these cultural purists, viewing cultural contamination not as a juggernaut that erases cultures but as an inevitable fact of human society which we should try to harness and make the most of: “We do not need, have never needed, a settled community, a homogeneous system of values, in order to have a home. Cultural purity is an oxymoron. The odds are that, culturally speaking, you already live a cosmopolitan life, enriched by literature, art, and film that come from many places, and that contains influences from many more” (113).

camels

Other scholars have made the case against cultural contamination just as forcefully as Appiah makes the argument for it. They suggest that cultural mixing erodes the bedrock of a country’s practices, customs, and most importantly its language. In the UAE, those scholars have found a prime example of a country whose age-old language, Khaleej Arabic, is dying even as you read these English lines, and perhaps because you read these English lines. The push in Emirati schools towards strengthening its Arabic language program reflects the old culture’s efforts to ward off the new, invading culture, argue those who are skeptical about globalization. We Danes feel the thrust of that argument: Danish teenagers are losing touch with their mother tongues just as fast as their Emirati peers are. Absent a festival that can compare to the UAE’s Qasr al Hosn Festival, the cultural practices that make Denmark unique and set it apart from, say, Sweden or Norway, are dying out. We must not ignore the warnings of the globalization skeptics, but as I stand in this line, waiting for my legeimat, I find the thought that there is something wrong with this degree of conversation across cultures a hard one to accept.

These thoughts lead me back to the words my professor said a couple of hours earlier: “I love the indigenous postmodernism of it all.” I glossed over his words when I first heard them, dismissing them as too grandiose and intangible for me to process on a weekend night. Upon reflection, though, I realize that his words were not just a sarcastic comment. The reason we come here, the reason the Qasr al Hosn Festival engages us, has to do with the nature of the festival and its stance towards modernity. Qasr al Hosn features dhow builders and basket weavers, blacksmiths and subsistence fishermen, but it sets those anachronisms against the visually dominating Abu Dhabi skyline so that every visitor, no matter how entranced he is by the dexterity of the seventy-something-year-old fletcher, need only look up and see the towering Burj Mohamed bin Rashid attached to the World Trade Center Mall and Souk to be reminded that the UAE is neither stuck reminiscing about the past nor busy demolishing its history in the name of progress. The Qasr al Hosn Festival showcases nothing short of the spirit of the Emirates: a syncretic historical-postmodern state of mind that sees no issue in hosting a heritage festival in the heart of a bustling metropolis.

*Both photos: John Carges, used by permission

Images of a City: Qasr Al Hosn Festival I

Images of a City: Qasr Al Hosn Festival I

[soliloquy id=”4474″]A bedouin coffee party. An old man playing a rababa, its body sparkling and inlaid with mother-of-pearl and blue stones. A tourist kneeling in the middle of the bedouin coffee party, pointing at the beautiful rababa inlaid with mother-of-pearl and blue stones, his face very close to the singing old man, smiling for a little too long while his partner takes a picture with her phone.

A window washer hangs from the taller World Trade Center tower, perched over the scene watching the swarms of visitors as the sun begins to set. Why is he still up there?

A fisherman casts a wide net into a body of water in which there are no fish. The salty smell of fish in a fishless, man-made sea.

The crowd ebbs and flows: hundreds of abayas, thousands of kanduras, a sea of rubber flip flops and wriggling toes with chipped polish.

Three teachers get henna in the traditional Emirati style. Their hands look like lumpy spiders. A preteen boy with three cameras around his neck bumps into one of them, smearing her henna on her sleeve. Another teacher pours water from a Masafi bottle as she tries to scrape it off, but all she does is rub it into the denim as the muddy water drips onto the sand and between her toes. The smell of the dye lingers as they depart for the saluki park.

Helvetica signs that say HERITAGE.  Bad typesetting spells dwindledtothepointhweremanyspeciesarenowendangered. The seas are over-exploited. The sign implies that should probably not eat hammour if you want to be sustainable.

Old shipbuilders with a rusty awl, their dhow perpetually under construction.Palm fronds on the ground and chanting that sounds like it’s emanating from the earth, but is actually blasting from a speaker muffled with a burlap sack.

Fun fact: qasr has the same root as castle. “Wait, you studied abroad in Spain, right? Is alcázar…whoa! That’s so cool.”

A British man expertly explains the burqa to his wife, referring to it as a “face mask.”  A man with a belt made of bullets, holding a gold-plated gun, stands in front of a police station. The line of his rifle barrel points to a sand pit full of children in orange vests, digging.

A poster explains the growth cycle of date palm fruit. Can you eat them when they’re green? No, you cannot. But when they’re just slightly unripe you might be able to make juice out of them.

A sand bag with a fax number on it. An LED billboard across the street, advertising the QASR AL HOSN FESTIVAL. A festival celebrating a fort that you are never allowed to enter.

A man with an iPad, eyes wide. “Would you mind taking a quick survey about your experience tonight?”

My experience?

A wedding celebration.

An antique gramophone.

A prayer rug on the sand.

A tree with fat beanpods, hanging.

A man swinging an axe at a date palm.

A minaret perfectly aligned between two glassy buildings.

A small boy holds a large falcon.

A smile with missing teeth.

A toddler in a tiny kandura is placed on a pony against his will. La, ‘ami, la!

An anchor stuck in a gleaming fishing basket.

A fur-lined abaya.

A woman in a burqa atop a camel.

A man sitting on a pile of crates, wearing a tartan skirt and taking a swig from a clay jug.

Wheelchair hubcaps painted with the UAE flag, black slowly fading to red, to green, to white as the owner wheels up a ramp onto a boat.

Children with gold tangled in their hair.

 

You can go to the Emirati Salad stand to learn about the edible plants of the region. The first bush looks familiar. “I think I’ve eaten that one! Do you pickle it?” He asks where, eyebrow raised. “…Georgia?” Well – it is a desert plant, he explains. He doesn’t think you ate it in Georgia. He chuckles and gives you a bite of a succulent-type thing that tastes like a sour cucumber.

A family of five eats legaimat on the ground, leaning against a dune in the corner behind the houbara enclosure. Cardamom fog lingers in the air, and you can hear the syrupy rosewater dripping back into the paper bowl, or at least you think you can.

Spotlights shooting from the turret of the fortress, hazy in the night sky and stretching upwards to converge in a many-pointed star. The effect is such that, when you first notice them, you think the rays are coming down from between the clouds, illuminating the tower with heavenly light.

Photo by John Carges, used by permission

Photo by John Carges, used by permission

 

 

 

Date Palm Festival 2012

Date Palm Festival 2012

Date Festival Baskets

ON LOCATION IN ABU DHABI

As both a wholesome snack and a cultural symbol, dates play an important role in Emirati heritage. Date palms are one of few plants that can survive and flourish in an arid desert climate; they are also packed with nutrients and are a particularly good source of iron, calcium and potassium.

The historical role of dates has been preserved in the present day culture; in keeping with the well-known tradition of hospitality, dates are always among the first things offered to newly arrived guests. Jars of deliciously sweet dates, accompanied by pots of steaming coffee, have become an iconic symbol of Arabic hospitality.

The Date Festival, held every year, celebrates this symbol of Emirati history and offers all of us a chance to discover more about this wonderful and important treat.

At the festival, local date palm growers and representatives from eighteen other nations proudly displayed their wares for potential customers and date-lovers alike to sample. As I wandered between the dozens of different booths, examining the rows upon rows of wicker baskets overflowing with dates, I was amazed at the sheer quantity of dates surrounding me. According to a pamphlet handed out to us at the entrance, more than five hundred different varieties were on offer. The combinations of sizes, shapes and colors that make up so many different varieties were almost unimaginable.

The different selections were not limited to just to whole dates; a myriad of date-derived products took center stage at many of the booths. Date paste to spread on biscuits. Syrupy date juice to sip from little cups. Dates stuffed with almonds, pistachios, and walnuts. Dates covered in chocolate, individually wrapped for a one-time treat or in massive gift boxes to share.

The booths were over-flowing with treats, and if we hesitated in front of a booth for even a second, the result was a proffered tray of samples, and the promise to “taste it, you’ll love it.”

Filled to the bursting point with dates? Can’t squeeze in another bite-sized sample? We found that there were many other ways to celebrate and enjoy dates that didn’t involve eating them. In one corner of the festival, customers had the chance to plant their own date palm tree. These trees, holding each planter’s name, were going to be replanted in the heart of Abu Dhabi’s downtown. A palm was on show at the center of the festival, with a climbing rope set up for those feeling brave enough to scale the tree. One booth even boosted a large date sculpture of ‘Malweat Samara’, the minaret of Iraq’s Grand Mosque.

Despite the emphasis on dates, there is much more to the festival than a simple love of the stickily sweet snack. And much more is exchanged at the festival than just contact information between businesses and customers. The focus of the festival is to celebrate the history and heritage of an entire region. As the director of the festival, HE Rashid Mohammed Rashid Shariqi, wrote “[the festival] is our opportunity to fondly remember and honour our glorious past, as well as to reflect on our present.”
 

 

 

“What’s It Like…?” Pondering the Question of Being a Woman in Public Space

“What’s It Like…?” Pondering the Question of Being a Woman in Public Space

ON LOCATION IN ABU DHABI

 

All Abu Dhabi residents know that it is not like anywhere else on earth. And many of us have been asked by people in our home countries, ‘What’s it like to live there?’ For me, this is often accompanied by questions such as, ‘Can you go anywhere you like?’ and the ever popular, ‘Do you have to wear a-’ accompanied by rapid hand movements as they struggle to find the right word for a hijab. Many times I am tempted to answer, ‘Wear a what? Motorcycle helmet? Beekeeping hat?’ but mostly I smile politely and shake my head, explaining that it’s not like what they’ve seen on television.

What they’ve seen on television is a lot of post-9/11 imagery of women wearing burkas in Afghanistan, or they’ve seen movies like Sex and the City 2, and Lawrence of Arabia. Not to mention any number of the war movies set vaguely in the Middle East, such as Jarhead and Black Hawk Down, none of which would be complete without an extended sequence of women and children running from men who are  hanging out of Jeeps and waving machetes and AK-47s.

But above and beyond those images, no one could fathom why I, a feminist since the age of four, would fly halfway around the world to go to college in a country where female citizens can’t pass on citizenship to their children. Where a marriage license must be presented at some hotels when a male and female guest check-in. Where men outnumber women at least two to one—the highest gender imbalance in the world, according to the CIA World Factbook. Where as a white, single, educated woman, I would be in the minority.

These facts may suggest a restrictive environment for women. To complicate this picture, however, let me offer a number of other facts that outline a society with more progressive gender roles.

Emirati women enjoy more than double the international average of female representation in elected government. In 2007, the number of UAE national women enrolled in higher education was 24% higher than men; 77% of UAE females pursue education beyond high school; and women account for 59% of the national UAE labour force. The UAE also ranks 39th in the world for gender-empowerment. By these indicators, female UAE nationals seem to be doing better than many Western women, and certainly above the average indicators for women around the world.

But to take the statistics of Emirati women as representative for all who live in the country would be to ignore the crucial fact that less than less than 20% of the total population of approximately 6 million are UAE citizens, and only 10% of those who live in the UAE are Emirati women.

So what about the other women in the UAE, those who are not nationals? Here, in the absence of similar statistics, I venture into the dangerous but nonetheless illuminating field of anecdotes.

Ever tried walking down Electra Street on a Thursday night? An eight-lane thoroughfare through the centre of downtown Abu Dhabi, it heaves with traffic and crowds navigating the bizarrely multi-level footpaths. If you are a woman, when you suddenly realise that you are the only woman in sight, the thought can be unnerving. I attended an all-girls high school, and when a boy walked through the halls, we stared and whispered because we were so unused to seeing his kind of human. In high school, however, we never sat down in the corridors and watched as the boy walked past. There is a phenomenon in Abu Dhabi of men sitting on the footpaths and watching people who walk by. Their eyes seem to zero in on women, and the smile that comes with the stare can be unsettling. I know the stares are out of curiosity, and that the street is one of the main places for social interaction here. Still, when out walking, I have often asked my male friends walk around me where these crowds of men are particularly thick, to form a physical barrier between myself and the nagging stares.

When I put the question ‘What is it like to be a woman in the UAE?’ before my classmates, I received varying responses. Most women felt generally safe in the UAE, even at night. Many commented on the stares. As one classmate put it, ‘It just wears on you’. Several others pointed out that reception seems to be based on ethnicity. White students felt they could get away with wearing less conservative clothing and have be written off as being ‘dumb Americans’ who hadn’t researched their host country rather than be seen as provocative or immoral. For one classmate, a Muslim female who has lived in the UAE her whole life, donning her hijab meant that Muslim men would try to regulate her behaviour and ‘protect’ her, which she experiences as an invasion of privacy. When she made the decision to not wear her hijab anymore, she noticed a distinct difference in the way she was treated: Arab men ceased trying to play the role of her ‘brother.’ One comment she made that resonated among all of us is that in the UAE, people ‘are always trying to figure out where everyone’s from so as to determine how to treat them.’ Her comment suggests that the way different genders experience life in the UAE is further complicated and divided by nationality and ethnicity.

A particular area of concern for female students is athletics, which many of us participate in on a regular basis. NYU Abu Dhabi has an agreement with a nearby primary school whose facilities we use for swimming, soccer, and other sports. The walk from our residence to the primary school takes just five minutes and walking there is the one exception many students make to their efforts to dress modestly. Most girls play soccer in athletic shorts – it’s easier, especially when temperatures however at 40 degrees Celsius and the humidity borders on unbearable. As one student said, ‘People will stare and objectify no matter what I am wearing – I do not wear shorts because I like being stared at, I do it because it’s practical.’

A sophomore at NYU Abu Dhabi, I have now been back in the city for a month, after spending my summer break at home in Australia. It is good to be back here, in my ‘other’ home, but it is not without its complications. The staring is constant, but I am learning to accept it as a matter of being the ethnicity I am in the place I am.

I struggle, every day, to work out what all of these experiences mean for my conduct in the UAE, whether that will change over time–when and if the gender gap in population balances out–or whether it will always be a fact of life living here. Embedded in this struggle is thinking about what it means to be in the minority, to think each day about what to wear and how to strike the balance between clothing that will be conservative but not result in heatstroke.  And today, I’m going to the beach–and I’ll be wearing a one-piece bathing suit.

I could never make the claim that my experiences in the UAE, nor those of the classmates I have interviewed, represent the experiences of all women.  I can say, however, is that while gender clearly acts as a divider here, it is not the only divisive factor. Ethnicity and race are just also markers of difference, perhaps even more so. And because skin colour is no guarantee of ethnicity, questions of ethnicity add further complications to snap judgements being made solely on external factors.

So when I am asked ‘What’s it like to be a woman living in the Middle East?,’ as I often am in Australia, I can answer that it’s not only my gender that determines how I am treated, but the colour of my skin. In Australia, my gender means that I am sometimes honked at waiting for the bus, whistled when I’m walking down the street, and that occasionally I am trapped in awkward conversations with the creepy man on the bus because I feel physically intimidated by him. In Australia, then, it’s solely gender that attracts notice—attention that is not necessarily positive. In Abu Dhabi, however, my whiteness compounded with my gender means I am an oddity, a curio, someone who gets treated with respect and confusion simultaneously.

What seems important about living here, in Abu Dhabi, is that we acknowledge that men and women have different experiences of public space, and that we find ways to talk about those different experiences as openly as possible. In that vein, then this article is dedicated to those who responded to my questions and allowed me to discuss their experiences. I hope that we continue to talk and that, perhaps, we can continue this conversation in the comments section, below.

image by Diana Gluck

Abdulkhaleq Abdulla at NYUAD

Abdulkhaleq Abdulla at NYUAD

GLOBAL STUDIES COLLOQUIUM

 

On Wednesday, April 18, Dr. Abdulkhaleq Abdulla delivered a lecture on the second year of the Arab Spring as part of the NYUAD Global Studies Symposium. A professor of political science at UAE University in Al Ain and the 2005 Cultural Personality of the Year, Dr. Abdulla attracted some 50 members of the NYUAD community to the Downtown Campus for his talk and for the opportunity to ask questions.

The prevailing tone of his presentation was one of optimism. He began by reviewing what he considered the primary accomplishments of the 2011 Arab Spring. These ranged from the more quantifiable fall of four entrenched dictators to the less tangible sense that “Arabs are now in the driver’s seat,” directing their own future.

Turning to 2012, Dr. Abdulla first briefly gestured at the dynamic that he did not want to focus on, pointing out that the day-to-day battles and challenges in places like Egypt, Yemen, Syria should not distract observers from the overall positive regional trajectory. Without denying the obstacles ahead, he asserted the primacy of three encouraging “megatrends” and spent the remainder, and the majority, of the lecture sketching these dynamics.

The common theme of the megatrends was reconciliation. First, Dr. Abdulla argued that the Arab Spring represents a reconciliation between global history, which for the past several decades has been moving toward democracy and liberalization and economic openness, and Arab history, sometimes labeled as immune to this tendency. No longer can people make such claims about Middle East and North Africa exceptionalism, the professor declared. The second reconciliation he noted is between Islamists and secularists, who are learning to accept each other’s political presence and to govern together. Finally, Dr. Abdulla spoke of a reconciliation between Arabs and the West. In his opinion, the Arab Spring broke the confrontational mindset of 9/11 and provided a common meeting ground, such that America is flirting with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Islamists are stepping back from their anti-American discourse.

“Megatrends are what matter more than anything else,” Dr. Abdulla concluded. He predicted that the second year of the Arab Spring will be even more successful than the first. “The glass is not half empty,” he insisted; “the glass is full to the brim.”

Many of the questions posed to Dr. Abdulla after the lecture interrogated his optimism. The general thrust of the queries was whether such optimism is wise when there is so much to be discouraged about, including the poorly covered uprisings in Bahrain and eastern Saudi Arabia, the region’s persistent economic disparities and problematic demographic trends, and the challenges of creating new constitutions. Throughout, Dr. Abdulla maintained his positive line. He clarified that he is most interested in the intellectual aspect of the megatrends and that although the future will be difficult, he chooses to be optimistic.

Questions also probed Dr. Abdulla’s view on the situations of the Arab Gulf states. Although not all countries in the Gulf have experienced street-level protests, he rejects the idea that they are exempt from the processes of change sculpting the greater Arab world. He affirmed that, like all Arabs, citizens of the Gulf states deserve to have more rights, more freedom, more meaningful elections, and stronger media. Moreover, he is sure that these things are coming and declared that the nations of the Gulf will be more democratic in the near future, with the UAE leading the way.

Such a move toward democracy could augment the already weighty presence of the Gulf states in the Middle East and North Africa, a phenomenon which Dr. Abdulla has termed the “Gulf moment” in his writings. But, he pointed out in a post-lecture interview with NYUAD historian Dr. Andrew Patrick, if the Gulf does not make reforms in line with those of the burgeoning Arab democracies, this “Gulf moment” could be short-lived.

Whether in the Gulf or the rest of the Arab world, a key factor for Dr. Abdulla in all these processes of change is that they come from within. As he said to Dr. Patrick, forced political shifts like those in Iraq will not be as genuine and lasting as those demanded and enacted locally. He suggested that in the wake of the initial uprisings, the next major event will be the establishment of a successful, self-driven democracy to serve as a model for the rest of the Middle East and North Africa.

Especially with a regional example to look toward, Dr. Abdulla firmly believes that the new dynamics set in motion by the Arab Spring will only continue to gain momentum.

Caitlyn Olson is a Global Academic Fellow at NYU Abu Dhabi.

[Photo by Jeff Topping courtesy of The National]

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