We’ve been to most of the countries in the Gulf region now–Oman, UAE, Bahrain and Kuwait, although not Qatar and Saudi Arabia–and seen them in relatively quick succession.
– Each country has in the second part of the twentieth century experienced an unprecedented windfall in the way of oil revenues and used them to build itself up into a modern (even ultra-modern) nation, from, relatively speaking, the desert backwater that presumably each was fifty years ago. (Oman’s an outlier–a bit more below.)
– To see the Gulf states properly, you need a car. Car rentals can be very affordable, and of course gas is cheap. Traffic around Dubai is some of the worst we’ve experienced. The Gulf states all have modern roads, and are building many more at a rapid pace. They seem to love roundabouts, like some countries in Europe, and hate overpasses. Roundabouts do offer some opportunity for U-turns, but the lack of overpasses means that you’re often stuck going in the wrong direction (especially if you’re a tourist who doesn’t know directions and makes a wrong turn), for what can be a seemingly endless desert block. Build some overpasses!
– The Gulf is more traditional than many other corners of the world. Men almost uniformly wear traditional dress (dishdasha and keffiyeh (or embroidered hat in the case of Oman)) and women are largley dressed in full black robes, and often burqas. Gender distinctions are great. In some countries, such as Oman, it’s actually somewhat uncommon (outside malls) to see women at all–they just don’t participate to a full extent in public life. Even restaurants are segregated–men-only seating and “family” seating for mixed gender groups. In Saudi Arabia, as in Iran, many rules are enshrined in law; I believe that in all the other countries, it is more a matter of custom.
– It’s not quite clear how religious the people in the Gulf are–given the high education levels it would not be surprisingly to find a fairly secular society underneath it all–but the locals are uniformly Muslim on paper. The Gulf is not Syria or Iraq, or even Iran, which have historically seen the movement of many peoples and faiths, with various minority groups as historical remnants. (Oman is a bit of an exception ethnically in that there are black Omanis–see below.)
– The most striking thing about the Gulf is the number of non-Arabs who live and work there (as much as 90% of the population, in Dubai). Of course, these people come from various backgrounds, from wealthy Westerners who are compensated very well for coming to work so far from home, to South Asians who in what must be desperation to find work take jobs that offer often horrible working conditions and do not pay very well to boot (most famously in the construction industry, but elsewhere as well). The phenomenon of millions of people traveling thousands of miles in search of work is one that deserves a separate post, which I hope to put together at a later date.
Perhaps a bit surprising is how the countries differ from one another. The Gulf was ruled by various tribal leaders, most of whom in the twentieth century developed quasi-colonial relationships with the United Kingdom and then formed separate nation-states. The UAE, even today, is a federation of seven sheikdoms. Despite what must have been fairly similar histories (with the exception of Oman), the Gulf states have become somewhat distinct in the recent past. Some country-specific thoughts:
– Most famously, Dubai has become a center of commerce. With relatively limited oil reserves, Dubai has successfully leveraged its commercial history and location to become, truly, the hub city of the Middle East. It is home to the region’s biggest and best airline (Emirates) and the world’s most ambitious building projects (such as the manmade islands of the Palms and the World and the world’s tallest building, the Burj Dubai). I have been told by Arabs that, outside of Lebanon and Egypt, which are the centers of the Arab music and film industries, respectively, Dubai is the center of Arab media and popular culture, as well as technology.
– Bahrain is fairly multicultural. From what we understand, Bahraini law allows overseas workers to gain residence/citizenship more easily than other Gulf countries (in some it is simply not possible no matter how long one stays), and so Bahrain has longer-term non-Arab residents. We saw a Christian church (largely for the Filipino population) in downtown Bahrain, and there are good whole-in-the-wall type Thai restaurants as well. Even the Arab Bahrainis have a slightly more exotic look, perhaps from Bahrain’s long history as a port. Bahrain is known for banking, but is also trying to attract tourists, with free-flowing alcohol and a Formula One racetrack. A bit depressingly, Bahrain seems to be a center of prostitution, with Saudis driving over in new SUVs by the hundreds (Bahrain is an island, but a very long causeway connects it to Saudi Arabia) to drink and fornicate. Central Bahrain is filled with cheapish hotels featuring all kinds of evening entertainment.
– Kuwait, as described in a recent New York Times article, does not seem to be experiencing a great boom in investment as other parts of the Gulf, and parts of its downtown lie in ruins (still from the 1990-91 war??). It is of course just as rich or richer than its neighbors, but for whatever reason its general economy seems to be stagnating. Overseas workers we spoke to in Kuwait said that it is a horrible place to work, one woman saying that risk of sexual harassment/rape was ever present, including from the police. She explained further that her 12 year old son was in the Philippines and unwilling to return to Kuwait saying, “What I am going to do there? It is like a prison”. We also heard that other Gulf Arabs think ill of Kuwait. Although Kuwait started offering tourist visas recently, basic efforts to develop tourism seem lacking–the windows of the landmark Kuwait Towers are dirty, and ruins are visible nearby. One interesting, arguably more positive point: We are told that Kuwaiti society relaxed considerably after the war–one overseas worker mentioned that he thought it would be like Saudi Arabia when he first came, and was pleasantly surprised to find that standards of dress and behavior are surprisingly liberal.
– Oman still feels like a backwater compared to the other countries, although Oman most of all has a history of contact with the rest of the world, including especially in the nineteenth century, when it had a sort of small empire, including the island of Zanzibar. From its African history, Oman has a local black population, who seem to be totally integrated into Omani society. There are relatively fewer overseas workers in Oman, and one sees more locals holding regular jobs. Oman seems to be very well governed by its Sultan, and in our travels we have found Omanis uncommonly warm and gentle, with class and charm at times lacking in some of the other Gulf countries.