Last spring I participated in the kick-off workshop for an important new initiative on Arab governance at Stanford University. Typical of the event’s tone on the subject was a downbeat concluding presentation by Egypt’s well-known scholar and rights activist Sa’ad Eddin Ibrahim, who recoined the geographical term the “Empty Quarter” (Arabic: “Rub’ al-khali” , normally used to describe a desolate desert area of Southwestern Arabia). For Ibrahim, the”empty quarter” was a good metaphor for the part of the Islamic world that is Arab, noteworthy in its “emptiness” with respect to democartic politics.
Like Prof. Ibrahim, the rest of us at the workshop, academics and activists, Arabs and non-Arabs, struggled to find reasons to believe that many of the Arab countries in the Middle East and North Africa might become more obviously politically representative, given their governments’ talents at co-opting or stifling political expression and participation. But, like many such discussions, we ended up mostly discouraged by the two obvious and familiar dominant political forces in many Arab countries. Namely, the frequently repressive anti-democratic regimes and more representative, but untested, and, in the view of some, also anti-democratic Islamist movements.
To be sure, this dichotomy is an oversimplification. Yet, some Arab Gulf states in any case seem to be suggesting a “third way” for the political future, one that is grounded in educational and media development and a fairly direct embrace of globalization. The UAE and Qatar exemplify this approach. Indeed, there is a healthy competitiveness among the leaders of these two countries’ three rapidly-globalizing cities of Dubai (UAE), Abu Dhabi (UAE) and Doha (Qatar) to establish and maintain university programs and media outlets of the highest caliber in order to intensify their global reach and their citizens’ prospects to be part of this reach.
Dubai’s remarkable recent financial and infrastructural growth, Abu Dhabi’s new full-fledged campuses of New York University and the Sorbonne and Doha’s growth of the Arabic and English Al-Jazeera cable news stations are perhaps the best-known examples of this pattern in each city. Yet both the UAE and Qatar, as well as their immediate Arab neighbors, have placed their considerable hydrocarbon profits at the service of a diverse urban development strategy that has been all about placing Gulf cities at the forefront of the flows of global information, pedagogy, tourism and goods. As many officials and other natives have told me, bringing some of the world’s best educational and media practices and institutions to the Gulf stimulates local entities and citizens to learn from, link to, and even compete with these outside models. And globalized education and media bring with them basic notions of critical intellectual and journalistic inquiry that bring natives and people from throughout the world in dialogue around current social and political issues, including many some might deem sensitive. I experienced myself the thrill of engaging with Gulf students openly on important issues of politics in helping to set up a now-thriving international affairs program at Qatar’s public university.
If all of this is pretty well-known to even casual observers of the region, the connection to politics and democracy is less-often made. Yet it is straightforward. Dubai and its peer Gulf cities are fascinating laboratories of the meaning and effect of social growth and change at warp speed. As such, and with the knowledge of these countries’ governments, experiences and expectations are remarkably different across generations. Elders who grew up without electricity and plumbing can find themselves living under the same roof with grandchildren who are among the world’s most highly-networked, media-savvy trend-setters. The speed, thoroughness and hyperglobalized nature of urban development virtually ensure that the questions and answers faced by the current generation of Gulf urban hipsters take different forms from a generation, or even a decade, ago.
For a possible Arab “third way” political alternative to entrenched authoritarianism and uncertain Islamism, the significance of making the Gulf a magnet for innovative higher education, influential media and internationalism generally should be clear. Reformers in increasingly cosmopolitan Gulf cities are trying to create a new generation of global-oriented leaders who know how to ponder complex political problems in a way that acknowledges best practices within and outside of their societies.
As the Gulf aspires to become the new locus of Arab cultural and intellectual life, it may well more quietly suggest a less confrontational, dichotomous type of politics. Especially given the regional security environment, I would be loathe to predict a particular trajectory for the governments of places like the UAE and Qatar. But, as with everything else in Dubai and its neighboring cities, it seems a safe bet that the current crop of university students will find themselves in a very different place in the near future than where they were in the recent past.