Democracies, kingdoms, sultanates, petro-monarchies. Many words and political categories can be used to describe the countries of the Gulf, and there are many good reasons to talk about them and their systems of government. The West is experiencing severe difficulty with the functioning of its institutions. As it regularly does, the guiding compass provided by the U.S. has begun to swing towards isolationism, perhaps more desired than practiced (a global power cannot escape its destiny) but nevertheless sufficient to affect the range and movement of all the other actors in different ways. The European Union is waiting for a breakthrough, its mechanism is jammed, Brexit has triggered a new era. And there are no detailed maps to understand what the future really holds. The East is going through an expansionary and probably growth-maturing phase, while its systems of government, which are extremely varied (think of the contrast between the one-party system of China and the multi-party system of Japan), in turn depict its destiny and set the course for the Pacific area as a whole. The Middle East has entered another chapter of its history; while it’s materially and conceptually bigger than the Gulf, its story has this geopolitical area as its fulcrum. People in the West, who think of themselves as being at the center of everything, often fail to read the facts and above all to interpret the direction in which these countries are moving. They may be dominated by the use and processing of energy resources, but they have cultural roots that were established long before their gas and oil pipelines. The winds of political change are blowing in the Gulf, economies are pawing the ground, power relations are shifting as the world order breaks up and re-forms.
A multi-polar political game
After the Yalta Agreement and the fall of the Berlin Wall, these countries discovered they could play a multi-polar geopolitical game of light and shadow, clarity and opaqueness, while they experimented with new forms of diplomacy and improved the capacity and power of their hardware and software. They depend on oil and gas, this link is and will be unbreakable for as long as these are the dominant sources of energy, but their evolution is clear, this dependence will gradually diminish, in some cases it is already smaller than other production factors. Interpreting this scenario by looking at the economy alone cannot provide a full picture of what is happening in the Gulf. The mechanical approach of economists often leads to fatal misunderstandings that underestimate historical processes. We have seen rich countries in the West enter a period of political tension that contrasts with the well-being-equals-stability equation. There are no perfect formulas to define the course of human history, we navigate by sight and sometimes without the moon, in thick fog and with only a few stars to guide us. Culture and religion are the pillars that support everything, they come well before oil deposits, platforms, explorations, government strategies and energy companies. Islam is a dynamic force in desert tents, bright cities, at sea, in ports, in religious centers and in state buildings. The Prophet and the Koran are the guide, and the process of secularization, which has changed (perhaps “upset” would be a better word) the heart of Europe, has a completely different trait here. No comparisons can be made and it is futile to preach the development of “Western” values where a thousand years of history have carved another story. In his book The Art of the Novel, Milan Kundera describes this loss of direction among Europeans by taking Cervantes’s masterpiece, Don Quixote, and giving it an insightful interpretation: “As God gradually retired from ordering the universe and its system of values, having separated good from evil and given a meaning to everything, Don Quixote came out of his house and found he could no longer recognize anything. In the absence of the supreme Judge, a terrible ambiguity had suddenly arisen: the only divine Truth had broken up into hundreds of relative truths, which humans shared among themselves. Thus the modern era was born, and with it the novel, its image and model.” The past, present and future are the story of Caesar and God, right, strength, religion, a vision of the world, cosmogony. Dubai is a physical and metaphysical example of this landscape, Abu Dhabi is another brilliant piece in the puzzle. The glass and steel skyscrapers of these cities represent an aspiration to touch the sky, the projection of an (im)possible desire, thanks to the financial means provided by oil and gas, which has developed into tourism and services. As the price of oil fell, so Dubai’s real estate capitalization took off. These are of course the stages of boom and bust, but that’s what economies are about. And they apply to everyone, at any latitude. And, fortunately, not everything can be explained by the economy.
Culture, to build bridges
Culture remains the decisive point from which to build bridges, rather than divisions, to share experiences, not conflicts, understanding is the basis of everything. How can you think of describing the development of Oman without knowing that its capital, Muscat, is one of the oldest centers in the Middle East? The city was the starting point of the Frankincense Trail that led caravans on a two-month, 2400-kilometer journey to the Mediterranean. And the same road that entered Saudi Arabia passed by legendary cities like Medina (the “illuminated city”), Dedan (the ancient city of the kings of Arabia, mentioned in the Bible) and Hegra (the first site in the country to be recognized by UNESCO, in 2008).
In Western imagination it is a glimmer in the desert, but the reality is a landscape as rich as a mosaic, with the sea, the mountains, the sudden sparkle of the oases and a caravan culture that still exists alongside the most developed air fleets in the world. The culture of travel and transport. Emirates, the Dubai airline, was founded in 1985 and only had two airplanes. Thirty years later, it has the world's biggest fleet of Airbus 380 and Boeing 377 aircraft. This mix of ancient and modern is stronger than in Europe—not to mention America, a young country where the frontier culture of the race to the West is hard to discern today—and it constitutes the mystery, the charm and often the source of misunderstandings between East and West, the title of a fundamental book by René Guénon, whose teaching, as the philosopher Franco Volpi wrote, is centered on “the collision between Western civilization, characterized by an extraordinary material development and a corresponding moral and metaphysical impoverishment, and civilizations that still retain the vestiges of a traditional order. As, indeed, the Islamic one.” Close but distant worlds, united by the routes of energy, too often separated by political and cultural divisions. Let us build bridges, we both need a safe passage to the future.