An old Arab saying goes, “Cairo writes, Beirut publishes and Baghdad reads.” These three capitals, along with Damascus, were long the hubs of culture and education in the Arab world. Arabs from across the region flocked to these cities to study and work. Sculptures such as the 1958 Monument of Freedom in Baghdad by the great Iraqi artist Jawad Salim and "Egypt's Renaissance," unveiled in 1928 in Giza by the pioneering artist Mahmoud Mokhtar, embodied the ambitions of these Arab cities.
However, over the past few years, as these traditional Arab capitals became more embroiled in civil strife, a new set of cities started to emerge in the Gulf, establishing themselves as the new centers of the Arab world. Abu Dhabi, its sister emirates of Dubai and Sharjah and the Qatari capital, Doha, have developed as the nerve center of the contemporary Arab world’s culture, commerce, design, architecture, art and academia, attracting hundreds of thousands of Arab immigrants, including academics, businessmen, journalists, athletes, artists, entrepreneurs and medical professionals. While these Gulf cities may be unable to compete with their Arab peers in terms of political dynamism, in almost every other sense they have far outstripped their sister cities in North Africa and the Levant.Needless to say, to Arab intellectuals steeped in the histories of Cairo and Beirut, Damascus and Baghdad, the idea that nouveaux cities like Dubai and Doha are supplanting them is anathema. One of the first broadsides came from The Angry Arab himself, As'ad AbuKhalil, who true to his usual form minced no words:
What contribution to Arab culture have those cities made, unless you are talking about sleaze, worship of the European, denigration of the Asians, promotion of singers purely based on breast sizes and lip thickness, prostitution mentality (literally and figuratively), gender segregation and repression, the culture of measuring humans by the size of their bank accounts, etc. Culture, what culture? Cairo and Beirut were known for hosting a culture that allowed (often despite desires of the ruling governments) various political and cultural trends to co-exist and to clash, and for the expression of divergent political viewpoints. Cairo and Beirut were cities that allowed artists and writers to seek refuge and to express themselves artistically and creatively, and there is none of that in the Gulf. Yes, academics and journalists are flocking to the Gulf but what have they produced there? What ideas? They go there and they work as assistants and propagandists in the entourage for this prince or that prince. If anything, the impact of that Gulf oil and gas culture has been quite corrosive on the entire Arab world and its culture. In that sense alone, yes, Gulf cities do play a role.Oh, go ahead, tell us what you really think.
In Al-Monitor, the same venue that hosted Qassemi's original article, Abbas al-Lawati responded with a more nuanced assessment, "Gulf States Have Long Way to Go Before Leading Arab World," noting the expatriate nature of so much of Gulf culture:
What makes these Gulf cities so distinct is that each of them, unlike their northern Arab counterparts, arose after the advent of the nation-state, which by nature restricts immigration and imposes a relatively narrow definition of who does or does not belong. The emergence of the Gulf nation-states in the early 1970s effectively slammed the brakes on centuries of migration that led to a level of diversity in these cities that is still there under the surface. National identity was homogenized to make these new nations viable, and nationality — the right to belong —- was restricted to the small group of people whose ancestors had ventured toward these harsh lands from across the region. Any migrants from that point onward were considered guests who would eventually have to go home . . .
In the academic arena, in order to gain fast access to the global stage, these cities have in recent years begun large-scale importing of big-name Western academic institutions that may boast glitzy and high-tech campuses, but cannot guarantee the academic freedom of their Western counterparts. Even more worrying is the transformation these institutions are bringing to the linguistic landscape of these cities through educational reform. Almost every one of these new universities uses English as the language of instruction, and schools, from the primary stage to high school, are in turn expected to adjust their curricula to prepare students for an English-language tertiary education. These cities may be on their way to becoming the Arab world's education hubs, but there's little about them that remains Arab . . .
Today, in each of the cities that were cited as the new Arab centers, foreigners vastly outnumber citizens. Like the traditional Arab capitals, they have become hubs for migrants. The difference is that migrants in the Gulf have residency cards with expiration dates. It is therefore unrealistic to expect Gulf cities to grow to the level they wish if the majority of the population is transient and continuously reminded that it will one day have to leave. Someone who does not feel a sense of belonging will not invest his or her full potential in such a city.
Gulf cities are formidable, certainly. But will they be forces of major scientific and artistic innovation? And, moreover, why would Gulf authors develop their literature in Arabic when so many of the institutions of higher learning teach in English?Qassemi himself has noted these, and a couple of other, reactions to his original article on his own blog.
It's worth reading all sides in this debate; the contrasts between the old capitals and the new, the old culture and the new, are going to be features of the Middle East over the coming generation.