Opinion The Identity Issue

You can’t sit with us: Prejudice and “othering” between Khaleejis

An examination of the divides between "typical Khaleejis" and "Khaleeji cultural elites."

By Rana Al Mutawa

Artwork by Lebanese illustrator Nour Flayhan. Nour was born and raised in Kuwait.

This story is brought to you by Dr. Rocco’s Specialized Dental Center in Abu Dhabi, UAE.

Some of us critique outsiders’ stereotypical depictions of Khaleejis (Gulf Arabs), such as depictions of us being lazy, superficial and narrow-minded. But to what extent have we internalized these ideas of ourselves, and engaged in “othering” ourselves, when we judge each other through a similar lens?  I have seen Khaleejis who overwork themselves dismiss their Khaleeji colleagues as “lazy” for not “proving themselves” in the same manner. But why is an unhealthy work ethic being touted as an example to aspire to? I have heard Khaleejis referring to others who do not share the same cultural values as “superficial” or “narrow-minded.” But on what basis do we elevate certain values over others? And has this become a (regrettable) way for some of us to differentiate ourselves from the stereotypical idea of a “typical Khaleeji”?

If you’ve heard the phrase, “But you’re not a typical Emirati” (Kuwaiti/Omani/etc), then perhaps you might belong to the “other group.” For the lack of better terms, I will call the group the “Khaleeji cultural elites” (a “group” that is more diverse than I am representing it in this brief article). Generally speaking, Khaleeji cultural elites have often been educated at highly regarded higher education institutions, either at home or abroad, and many work in the private sector or in semi-government jobs (although others also work in government jobs). They are viewed as more “cosmopolitan” than other Khaleejis, because they have friends from various nationalities, speak a variety of languages fluently, or because they are “worldly” or “international” in their lifestyles, ideas and outlooks.

Khaleeji cultural elites sometimes make distinctions between themselves and so-called “typical Khaleejis” in multiple (sometimes subtle) ways, including in matters relating to work ethic, values and worldview. I have often heard —and myself have engaged in—some of these discussions. One small example that frequently pops up is the following, “These women are so over-dressed, it’s as if they’re going to a wedding.” This is often said in reference to women who are supposedly “overly” chic to be in a mall or coffee shop. A discussion then ensues about how “superficial” and “vain” these individuals are, how they have nothing more meaningful to do with their time other than to show off their brands or cars. While it is not only Khaleeji cultural elites who pass this judgement, it is the group I choose to focus on here.

I have been to the talks, art events, public lectures and museums attended by cultural elites (whether in the Gulf or abroad) —spaces that are considered more “meaningful” to spend one’s time in —and while I believe in their social value, the same bemoaned performances of “showing off” that take place in malls and coffee shops happen in more intellectual settings as well. If many people in Dubai’s Jumeirah Road are showing off their cars, many people socializing at “intellectual” events are showing off how “smart” they are. They are also performing and trying to impress. This applies to the small, local and so-called “authentic” intellectual spaces, and not just the big international events, galleries or symposiums.

If “superficial” social circles exclude those without the “prestigious” clothes and cars, then “authentic” talks and art events exclude those who do not have the “cultural capital” to be within them. Rather than engaging different people, spaces of cultural elites exclude those who do not understand the art or academic lingo (many people), and those whose values do not align with theirs.

This is not to say that non (cultural) —elites would not benefit from these cultural spaces. But it is likely that some of us take for granted the privileges we have that allow us to access them. While some may argue that many “typical” Khaleejis are economically well-off —and therefore their lack of access to these spaces is due to their perceived “laziness” —what we need to look at also is access to cultural capital.

Although certainly not all, many of us Khaleeji cultural elites have accumulated cultural capital through parents who believed in competitive education; access to higher quality private schools; better access to English or other languages; and contact with a cosmopolitan setting from a young age (such as exposure to different nationalities in school, or even through being a child of a mixed marriage), which allows us more fluency in international settings. This is not to say that Khaleeji cultural elites do not exert much individual effort or do not face restrictions (women, especially, face many societal and familial restrictions), but rather that many of us have grown up in an environment that encouraged or guided us to be competitive, or to be “different” from our peers. This cultural capital is sometimes taken for granted in these discussions about so-called “lazy” or “superficial” Khaleejis, and is used to exclude others.

One example is when cosmopolitanism is weaponized by shaming those who are perhaps more socially conservative. A Khaleeji woman, tired of her non-Khaleeji colleagues assuming that she is being restricted in marriage choices, explained that she did not want to marry a non-Khaleeji. She argued that she wanted to be with someone who shares her nationality, cultural values and experiences. This was met with a mocking response by another Khaleeji woman, who labelled her a racist. Others thought she was being narrow-minded.

This was not the first time someone who exhibits socially conservative values (which in this particular case, did not infringe on anyone’s life choices) gets depicted as racist, narrow-minded, or having been brainwashed by society. We do live in a cosmopolitan and globalized world, and that does require us to become more flexible. But people should not be mocked for wanting their cultural values to be easily understood and shared by their significant other. The very people who critique this woman will likely seek a person who shares a similar worldview as themselves. If they view themselves as liberal, they are likely to reject someone espousing conservative values —and understandably so. No one should be chastised for seeking harmony in their most intimate and personal of spheres.

As an Emirati woman married to a German man, I have experienced firsthand the difficulties and limits that society places upon Khaleejis (especially women), and the pressure to remain within the bounds of accepted social norms. We need to speak about these restrictions, but the effort to help society become more tolerant to change should not lead to excluding those who want to maintain some of the beliefs or values they grew up with (ones that do not infringe on others), ones that provide comfort and a measure of stability in a rapidly changing socioeconomic environment.

We can clearly see similar divides in other societies (between left and right wing groups, between “intellectuals” and “ordinary people,” and so on), something we should be wary of. Being “productive” members of our society should not simply be determined by being “hardworking” or being an “intellectual.” It should also mean seeking to engage each other and finding common ground, rather than “othering” our fellow citizens. This requires us to be critical of the prejudices within our “progressive” circles, and not just in mainstream society.

The views of the authors and writers who contribute to Sekka, and the views of the interviewees who are featured in Sekka, do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Sekka, its parent company, its owners, employees and affiliates.

Rana AlMutawa is an Emirati Ph.D. candidate at the University of Oxford. She writes about urban space, gender and national and ethnic diversity in the Gulf.