Panel| Identity & Culture in the 21st Century Gulf

OxGAPS launched its latest Gulf Affairs issue entitled ‘Identity & Culture in the 21st Century Gulf’ through a panel discussion on the theme. The panel was chaired by Eugene Rogan (Senior Member of OxGAPS), and joined by Fadi Salem (DPhil Candidate in Public Policy at the Blavatnik School of Government), Gaith Abdulla (PhD Candidate in Politics at Durham university), Robert Mogielnicki (DPhil Candidate at Magdalen College, Oxford) and Toby Matthiesen (Senior Research Fellow in the International Relations of the Middle East, St Antony’s College, Oxford).

The impact of social media growth on GCC youth

The panel commenced with Salem who discussed research findings on social media usage in the GCC region over the past few years. He started with the premise that a technological revolution which created a critical mass of internet, mobile and social media users helped to shape new social norms. On social media usage, Salem highlighted that, Saudi Arabia has the highest number of Facebook users in the GCC and twitter users in the Arab region. Furthermore, Saudi Arabia generates the highest number of monthly tweets, while Kuwait has the highest number of tweets per user. He also highlighted while the GCC enjoys one of the highest social media users in the world, it also has the highest gender gap in users. Salem concluded that social media ‘maturity’ in the GCC went through three phases: 1) social ends such as entertainment and social connections (2006-2010), 2) political ends such as collective action and citizen journalism (2011-2013), 3) and institutionalization such as economic opportunities and education and development (2014-2016).

The evolution of a shared khaleeji identity

Abdulla reoriented the discussion to focus on khaleeji identity starting with the observation that the thawb and ‘abaya are immediately recognizable symbols unique to the gulf region. He expanded on the term khaleeji (of the Gulf) which is becoming more common today and used by citizens and government officials from the six GCC countries alike as well as observers from outside the region. Abdulla stressed that the khaleeji identity precedes the GCC but that the regional integration project solidified it. Today it is manifested in music, sports, TV shows, banks, organizations, literature and poetry among others. According to Abdulla the khaleeji identity represents deep socio-cultural similarities that unify the citizens of the GCC states and that the main components of this identity include being a national of those states, an Arab, and a Muslim. He concluded by stating that today we can speak about khaleeji states, diplomacy foreign policy, society, political economy and perhaps a personality.

The case of Dubai’s trading culture and its consequences on the region

The panel then examined a case study on Dubai’s trading culture presented by Mogielnicki. The presentation started by highlighting three historic trading phases in the city: Saruq Al-Hadid (the Iron Age), Dubai Creek (1700-1980), and Free Zones (1980 – present). These trading hubs had clear implications for the infrastructure of modern Dubai and the identity of its inhabitants. The government of Dubai, Mogielnicki claims, is making a conscious effort to reinforce it as with the case of the newly inaugurated Saruq Al-Hadid Archeology Museum which highlights the early trading identity of the city. He then went on to discuss the evolution of Free Zones (FZs) in Dubai and its implications for the wider GCC. FZs, characterized by 100 percent ownership of a company without a sponsor in a designated area, have become the legacy of Dubai’s historic trading culture Mogielnicki concluded.

National identity theory and the GCC

The panel ended with a discussion on the academic study of identity by Matthiesen. He stressed that the nation is a form of identity building and cautioned on the dangers of a nationalistic attitude, while a supranational institution can also be problematic. He also added that one of the characteristics of national identities is who ‘we’ define ourselves against, and that in the case of the GCC, that is usually Iran. He claimed that Arab nationalists and Iran have historically struggled over the region even before the Iranian revolution—Abdulnasser of Egypt had struggled with the Shah of Iran in the past. After 1979 a greater emphasis on religious identity has taken hold in the Gulf region.  

Click here to download the released Gulf Affairs issue 'Identity & Culture in the 21st Century Gulf.'