BY GAIL GOLD
The six Gulf states, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, UAE, Qatar, and Oman are all sisters, sharing many of the same customs and traditions, while also varying in many ways. But all are united by three distinct entities: the Islamic religion, the Arabic language, and oil.
In 1931 oil was first discovered in Bahrain, less than a decade later in Kuwait, in 1938, and finally in Saudi Arabia. American and British geologists fought each other for the rights and concessions to drill and sell oil commercially. But the UAE’s oil supply dried up years ago, leading to a building boom starting in 2006, substituting construction in place of black gold. Now 45% of all the world’s cranes are in Dubai.
Bahrain is now low on oil, but Qatar has natural gas, which makes it extremely valuable. As we can imagine, the idea of an electric car sends a shiver through the oil companies. Because Kuwait has years of oil in reserves, it sells for less than water.
As such, as our guide explained in Kuwait, shopping is a mainstay in these wealthy countries. Houses can be gigantic with wings for various children, marrieds, and their families. Most have escalators, indoor pools, large restaurant appliances in the kitchen, normally 7-8 cars, and many, many servants. It is not unusual to completely change the decor and furniture every 4 months. The amount of money in the Gulf states is incredibly hard to imagine.
And the architecture of these commercial and residential spaces across all six countries is decidedly modern. World-renowned architects and engineers vie against each other to put up these fantastic buildings: tall towers, circular structures, and even beehives, all brightly lit at night.
I began my visit to the region in the sheikdom of the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Formed in 1971, UAE, probably best known for the spectacular Burj Khalifa building, became the commercial capital for the region. But there’s a spiritual side to the people, seen in their relationship with the wind, stars, moon, and sun. Their love of the ships of the desert, camels, which provide food and transportation, is still commonly found. Although Dubai, its largest city, is ultra modern, the camel—the “ship of the desert”—still counts.
From there, I was flown to the kingdom of Bahrain, an island in the middle of the Arabian Gulf. Bahrain, like any Middle Eastern country is scorching hot 8 months a year, with temperatures well into the 120s, so everything is air-conditioned: malls, the metro, all shops, movies, restaurants, and hotels. The metro malls have sunlit, spotlessly clean connecting walkways, all air-conditioned, of course, that whisk you down the long corridors.
Despite the heat, 90% of Arab women in these countries wear abayas, a long black caftan, when out of the home, often accessorized by heavy makeup and jewelry. Interestingly, when in public at a beach or pool, women wear their abayas over their swimsuits but at a hotel pool, they wear their bikinis.
Solo female travelers remain rare on the Arabian Peninsula. To ensure their comfort, luxury hotels offer female-only floors staffed by women and metro cars are similarly organized. Men are not allowed in either place so women may feel safe and secure.
Everywhere we go the traditional, heartfelt, and honest welcome of dates and Arabic coffee is offered. Arabic food is another treat: grilled chicken kabobs, fluffy saffron rice, honey, and pistachio sweets. Always a big fan of tabbouleh, somehow it just tasted better when I was there.
Since liquor is taboo and served only in hotels, it’s difficult to find an alcoholic drink, so pop and juices are standard beverages, even at weddings. Men and women sit separately during the wedding ceremony, there is no male/female dancing, no discos or clubs, and women and men visit separate beauty salons and barber shops, respectively.
These rules are rooted in Islam, which touches all facets of daily life in Arab countries. Prayer takes place 5 times a day upon hearing the call from the minaret. All Muslims must supplicant themselves to Allah and live by the standards of the Koran, Islam’s holy book. Written and read right to left, it is a living document telling Muslims how to live their life and what is expected of them. The manuscripts are hand-calligraphed on old parchment, many times in pure gold.
The different centuries-old Islamic art forms of calligraphy with elongated and downward brush strokes, colorful textiles, intricate hennaed hands are all beautiful to see.
The trip was an eye opener in every way. Meeting lovely people, having interesting talks, seeing museum treasures, especially the Abu Dhabi Louvre (more on that city in my next article!), marveling at the architecture and gaining more understanding of the Arabian way of life in the Gulf states were all wonderful experiences.