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Cultural Change in the Arab Gulf;
Natural Progression or Imperialist Plot?
by Neil McBeath
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The Emirati businessmen and the erstwhile raiders all exhibit what has been described as the Gulf Arabs’ “power of accommodation” (Raban 1979; 154). The last third of the 20th century totally transformed their world, bringing unparalleled wealth to small communities in a very short time frame. Obviously, mistakes were made at both individual and government level, and these have been gleefully remarked by hostile critics, but on balance, the Gulf States have shown a remarkable ability to cope with change, meeting new ideas head-on, and filtering them through their shared heritage and culture.

Britain’s decision to withdraw from East of Suez in 1971 (Cordesman 1977) marked a political turning point. Bahrain and Qatar opted for independence; the former Trucial States opted for federation and the establishment of the United Arab Emirates. At this juncture, Sheikh Zayed demonstrated the personal tact and diplomatic skill that were required to co-ordinate the separate Emirates, allowing each the freedom to develop its own identity within the framework of a larger organization.

The most visibly successful of the Emirates is probably Dubai, which has been totally transformed since the 1950s, when “Only two shops in the whole town had glass windows” (Lienhardt 2001;123). It is now home to what are currently the world’s largest airport, and its tallest building; the 206 floor, blue glass Khalifa Tower, complete with dancing, floodlit fountains and a staggering pyrotechnic display every New Year. It has become a major tourist destination, an international trade hub and a shopping centre for the more financially acute Abu Dhabi, and the more sedate, and cultured, Sharjah.

In Oman, His Majesty Sultan Qaboos became the only ruler in history to conduct a successful counter-insurgency war against Marxist guerillas, and then proceeded to establish a welfare state that is now moving towards constitutional democracy. The government is determined to reduce its dependence on revenue from hydrocarbons and to that end has funded an extensive tourist infrastructure, including a Royal Opera House.

In Qatar, by contrast, Sheikh Hamed bin Khalifa al Thani oversaw the construction of gleaming tower blocks, a Sports City, a highly successful national airline, and a broadcasting network based around Al Jazeera television (Emirates Centre for Strategic Studies and Research 1999). Al Jazeera has made its reputation by embracing investigative journalism, although it is true that it leaves Qatar alone. Sheikh Hamed then astonished the entire Gulf by peacefully relinquishing power, abdicating in favour of his son, the current Sheikh Tamim bin Hamed,

By any standards, these are impressive achievements, and they indicate that the Arab Gulf is now part of the globalised economy. Until approximately 1970, the Arab Gulf states were backwaters, sitting on the edges of world affairs, but now they have moved to centre stage and have adopted English as their international, business language because, in Babrakzai’s (2004) phrase, “they want to compete with the Anglo world, rather than join it.”

Linguistic Imperialism – yet again

This ought to be a fairly simple point to understand, but it finds no favour with those who endorse Phillipson’s (1992) theory of linguistic imperialism. This theory has most recently been criticized as “a ready-made sociopolitical template
……..superimposed onto ELT and the resulting picture unproblematically ‘read-off’” (Waters 2013; 130), but it is still has the power to awaken white-liberal guilt. Following Gramsci’s theory that conventional common sense is the hegemony of the ruling class, Phillipson offers the cake-and-eat-it argument that if English is imposed on a colonial dependency, then that is outright linguistic imperialism. If, by contrast, an independent country like Malaysia, having tried to limit the use of English in favour of the national language (Moh’d-Ashraf 2003; Tsui 2004), then reverts to English in the interests of economic growth and social prosperity, then this, too, is linguistic imperialism – a sort of confidence trick played on the electorate by a corrupt government.

This is also the stance taken by Asadi (2013), who bases her argument on her own version of history. “English was introduced to Saudi Arabia in 1924 due to the presence of the British and American governments” (Asadi 2013; 83) is simply untrue. In 1924, there was no Saudi Arabia. In 1924, what is now Saudi Arabia was divided into the Sultanate of the Nejd, ruled by Abdulaziz ibn Saud, and the Kingdom of the Hejaz, ruled by Hussein bin Ali, formerly the Sharif of Mecca.

Secondly, a recent study by Mahboob and Elyas (2014) cites evidence from Al Ghamdi and Al Sadat (2002) that English was not actually taught in Saudi Arabia until 1936. In that year, the Scholarship Preparation School was opened in the Holy City of Mecca. This school was intended ONLY for those Saudis who were being sent to study abroad, and no one else was allowed to study there.

Asadi also grossly misinterprets recent educational developments in the Kingdom. Absurdly citing Biava (1995) she offers as evidence “Saudi Arabia’s language planning objectives aim to increase English language instruction and reduce Arabic and Islam (sic) courses.” (Pp. 83-84).

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