In the Gulf (except Saudi Arabia) normal businesswear is fine, including skirts; on the evenings and weekends I covered my shoulders and legs to my knees. But aside from that, very little separated my experience in the Middle East from any other business interaction. Occasionally more conservative men would put their hand on their heart and bow rather than shake my hand, as they didn’t wish to touch a woman not related to them.
The women I interviewed usually wore headscarfs if not a full abaya, but I didn’t feel any pressure or judgment because I was dressed differently.
However strange it may seem to my fellow Americans, people in the more conservative parts of the Middle East really seem to believe that many of the customs we find objectionable are ways of protecting, respecting, and/or empowering women. They don’t think women are stupid or incapable. They just consider being a woman and leader of a household as more important than career paths outside the home, for the most part.
I did meet women at all rungs of the corporate ladder, from receptionists to government ministers. There are few, if any, professions that are limited by gender. (I didn’t meet any female taxi drivers, though I’m not sure if that’s legislated.) In fact, women are generally considered more competent and reliable employees, and are more likely to have gotten a higher education degree than their male counterparts.
But how does this shape your experience as a western woman in the ME? Fundamentally, you’re a foreigner, and they don’t measure you by the same standards they do their ‘own’ women. None of my interviewees seemed nonplussed to meet an unaccompanied, college-educated professional woman. A few times the men I met even said they hoped their daughters would grow up to be educated and independent like me (a huge surprise!). Yes, there were a few guys who wanted to ‘continue the discussion over dinner’, but all you have to say is no. And it’s not like that doesn’t happen in the Western world as well.
I’m not going to say there was zero harassment on the street. There were occasional cat calls, whistles, or more often simply staring, but again no more than most other cities. (I also lived in China, where people would occasionally come up and stroke my hair because they’d never seen anything like it. So maybe I’m desensitized to these kinds of things).
In a different field, or if you were planning to live and work there full-time and climb the career ladder, the differences between how men and women are treated might become clearer, but as an analyst who seldom spent more than two weeks in any one location I never felt compromised in my ability to do any work.
So if you have the opportunity: go! The Middle East is gorgeous. It’s the cradle of civilization. The food is incredible. Most of the people you meet will be as generous as they are proud of their heritage.
Most importantly, your visit, work, or time spent living in the Middle East will transform the way you look at the news. You’ll return to your home with stories of a land rich in history, hospitality, and hummus. Tell these stories. The western world needs to hear more of them.
Another favorite topic, after the undead, is failed states. They make for interesting photo essays – from Postcards from Hell to The Worst of the Worst (subtitle: bad dude dictators and general coconut heads) to Planet War. The one that stuck with me most, however, is Lifestyles of the Rich and Tyrannical: a short exploration of the lavish real estate holdings of some of the aforementioned bad dude dictators.
Perhaps it just seems topical. I recently returned from Oman, home to the enigmatic Sultan Qaboos and his (estimated) twenty-four palaces. True, he’s had forty years to feather his nest, having deposed his father in 1970. And judging by the looks of his central palace in Muscat (left), I don’t blame him for trying again (and again, and again).
Oman is the second-largest country on the Arabian peninsula, and by most accounts its most beautiful. It’s remarkably peaceful, especially given it shares a land border with Yemen, is 21 miles from Iran, and hosts a large port in close proximity to Somalia.
I was there for two weeks on a business trip – long enough to learn three phrases in Arabic and meet two members of the royal family (one of which took the opportunity to extol, at length, the virtues of Russian hookers as opposed to Chinese ones).
‘If you wanted to go outside at night, you had to carry a sword,’ my driver, Hashim, told me. He was born sometime in the fifties, though he’s not sure exactly when.
Today, 95% of the Omani population is literate and almost everyone speaks fluent English in addition to Arabic. The roads of the capital, Muscat, are wide and nearly traffic-free, there’s air conditioning everywhere, and the tap water is potable (which is more than you can say of Turkey). Life expectancy is in the 70s and the per capita income is $24k a year. Which, incidentally, is an order of magnitude greater than most of my American college-educated friends made last year.
There are two obvious reasons this kind of supercharged modernization was possible. First, the GCC’s rulers – absolute monarchs, or emirs, or sultans – have little need to pander to that pesky bourgeois notion of democracy, thanks to decades of oil-funded public largesse.
In true Maslowian fashion, the idea of democracy doesn’t hold much appeal to the generation who are experiencing life in a safe, stable country for the first time. I asked Hashim if he would like to vote:
‘Why would I do that?’ he said. ‘I live a good life.’
The only country in the region to make any concrete steps towards democratic rule is Kuwait, which formed its first elected National Assembly in 1963. The experiment has not been a smooth one. Critics blame the National Assembly for hamstringing Kuwait’s development through petty, corrupt, and/or incompetent governance. The decision in January to take over responsibility for all consumer loans – effectively, a bailout for some of the world’s least credit-worthy spenders – is only one example of how the short-term interests of politicians worried about reelection are trumping the long-term viability of the country.
I remember writing an essay about how democracy is self-evidently the best form of government back in sophomore year of college. It has since been lost to the sands of time (read: computer failure). I still believe it is, in theory. But subsequent courses back in the Ivory Tower – and, of course, being hit over the head with the disparity between the developing country I live in, a ‘democracy’, and places like Oman – have made me think a lot more about when and where democracy can be reasonably introduced.
Tocqueville thought democracy would lead us a future of equality and blandness. Robert D. Kaplan, in his excellent, if controversial piece on why democracy is bad for developing countries, has a slightly different vision. Kaplan believes our love of the bottom line will lead us to a globalized, and therefore anarchic, economy, which will necessitate tyrannical rule to restore stability. The tyrant will be The Corporation, or the Military-Industrial complex, as the problems of the world are too vast to be controlled by one bad dude dictator and/or coconut head.
In Oman, at least, the promise of democracy – the premise of democracy – is seen by many as dubious. The financial crisis has if anything strengthened the average Omani’s (and Oman-based expat’s) conviction that Sultan Qaboos’s measured approach to development is best for the country (the country continued to grow and saw a minimum or projects go on hold while neighbors like Dubai tanked). One man I talked to, the Dutch GM of a major oil company’s Oman operations, went so far as to call Qaboos ‘a philosopher king in the Platonic fashion.’
As an American raised by a Palin-loving ex-Marine (ex-Marine in the Palinic fashion?) on the good old fashioned values of hard work, industry, and disdain of the Washington establishment, I’m uncomfortable with Omani king-worship. And, for that matter, the docility of most of the people in the Gulf in the face of the abuses of their governments. Yet I also realize I grew up in a state that provided me free education, a childhood untouched by violent or arbitrary crime, and an environment where blog posts comparing politicians to soul-sucking zombies are laughed at and not censored.
I’m sure there are plenty of people doing fascinating work on human development. Some day when I don’t have 26,000 words of copy to write in a month I might have more time to get into it.