As I recently watched a programme on one of the local TV channels, I noticed that the guests — several Emirati girls, who were presenting a project — were very reserved, as noted by their inflexible approach to the conversation with the host, their body language and attitude. It was evident that the host noticed this and repeatedly tried to create a more relaxed atmosphere by making a funny comment or a joke. Still, with each attempt, the girls became even more timid, as if cautious not to reveal their reaction.
The programme lasted for about an hour, during which time, the girls tried hard not to lose what, in their view, was decorum — without exception, they all wore the most expensive watches and the most stylish branded shoes.
A similar obsession with outward appearance was evident in one of the recently televised national events. Even though there were more than 1,000 Emiratis attending, their voices could not be heard, for all were too busy checking that they were dressed perfectly. Men were mostly fixing their ghatras and women spent the time re-wrapping their shailahs around their heads every now and then.
Yet, it seems that I am not the only one noticing such peculiarities. A friend from one of the Gulf countries visited me a few days ago and during the course of our discussion he asked: “What is the secret of reservedness of the Emiratis? Why is there such a scarcity in the Emirati participation in the regional media, social and cultural events? Don’t they realise that such attitude is what allows for the same “talking heads to dominate all public events?” I confirmed that although UAE is rich in writers and intellectuals, most of them are reluctant to participate in the cultural and social movements, whether regional or abroad. Such hesitation to get involved is creating a real crisis in the UAE society, as their voices are not heard. In my view, their attitudes are likely due to natural shyness associated with expressing one’s opinion in public. However, it may be that their silence is a sign of their indifference to express themselves to others, in the first place.
Emiratis are so keen not to offend anyone by their views, not only political, but even those related to life and human thoughts. Consequently, they prefer listening to speaking.
The same can be said about the people of Oman and Qatar, which form, with the UAE, the “reluctant trio” of the Gulf. If you visit Bahrain, Kuwait or Saudi Arabia, their communities and their ideologies can only be understood and appreciated by attending one of their majlises or while meeting their people. While you find the majority of the people of the “reluctant trio” keen to show only a positive image of their communities, they do so without getting into detailed elaboration, leaving an impression that they live in a utopia.
I visited Doha a while ago and when I had the chance to speak to a group of Qataris, I discovered that they applied the same rules of expression as those of the Emiratis and the Omanis — where everything is perfect and fine! The Qataris too avoid being under the spotlight. If you consider the Al Jazeera channel in Qatar, you will find that most of the Qataris are working in back-office operations. What puzzles me is that why all the citizen visitors of the shopping centres in the UAE or Qatar are so elegant, as if in an official visit! In this world dominated by image and outward appearances, it is rare to find someone at their ease, not caring about the watch around their wrist, or the shoes they are wearing! This tells a lot about the shyness problem among the previously mentioned societies.
Perhaps my interpretation of such phenomena would upset some. Yet, as only by recognising the problem, we can find the solution, I am willing to take a risk by stating that such exaggerated elegance, all the time and in all occasions, reflects a psychological confusion that some of our societies suffer from.
We rarely hear of renowned individuals — people of culture and great intellect — in Oman, despite having a large number of Omani intellectuals in all fields. They are reluctant to step out, as are their fellows in the trio, the Qataris and the Emiratis. They are hesitant to express themselves, reluctant to write and convey their views openly, even if opposing other groups in society.
We do not know much about Omani media or the Omani newspapers. We do not even remember their names, although Oman is an adjacent country. It may also be very hard for us to name any Omani actor or a TV anchor.
Fortunately, there is a new class emerging in the societies of the UAE and Qatar, in particular, represented by the students and graduates of the new colleges and universities, who are seriously involved in voluntary social programmes. A few days ago, hundreds of young men and women came to the streets in Dubai to participate in cleaning and ridding their environment of the waste left after the National Day celebrations. In Doha, a group of girls launched the initiative Tanween, where volunteers visit libraries and children’s centres to read for the children and encourage reading. You find these young people involved in all celebrations — from preparation, organising, reception, to the presentation. They express their opinions freely on Twitter and Facebook, and on their blogs. They are never clashing with, or fighting against, the values of their societies. Yet, they would respectfully disagree with others.
Active societies are those where individuals exchange opinions and ideas; they agree and disagree and demonstrate their views clearly, openly and impartially. This is not an invitation to get to the streets, but a call for more active participation in community development and in a constructive criticism. As the old saying goes: “When modesty is misplaced it becomes weakness.”
Yasser Hareb is an Emirati novelist and writer on political and social affairs. You can follow him at www.twitter.com/YasserHareb