Population: 65.4 million
Literacy Rate: 85%
Unemployment Rate: 9%
Land Area: 3,097,988 sq km
Land Mass: World’s largest peninsula
Unique Feature: Encompasses world’s largest sand desert
Belief Systems: Muslim 82%, Christian 9%, Other 9%
Population per sq km. Oman 1, UAE 7, Kuwait 15,
Sixty years ago the countries of the Arabian Peninsula were a collection of impoverished, disparate states, more easily defined by tribe than by nation. So how did the region suddenly reinvent itself as a major economic powerhouse with a strong sense of regional identity? The answer may be in the region’s inheritance of trading excellence and social coherence.
Tropical Roots (66,000,000–10,000 BC). The climate of eastern Arabia, some 66 million years ago, was far more verdant than it is today, with savannah-like grasslands and abundant rainfall. Dinosaurs and crocodiles, suggested permanent rivers cut the deeply incised mountain ranges of today’s Peninsula.
Homo erectus was attracted to the rich hunting and gathering grounds of southern Arabia more than a million years ago. Homo sapiens arrived around 100,000 BC and began more organized settlement and the earliest forms of social cohesion dating from 10,000 BC.
Born to Trade (10,000 BC–AD 500). Trade runs through the blood of Peninsula peoples. Copper was where it all began in ancient Oman and traded through the mighty Dilmun Empire.
Frankincense, the aromatic resin of the Boswellia sacra tree, was the chief export and economic mainstay of the region, helping to fund the mighty Nabataean civilisation that controlled much of northwestern Arabia from 200 to 100 BC. Traded with Egypt, Jerusalem and Rome, it was thanks to the frankincense trade that the people of southern Arabia became the richest people on Earth. The trade was centered on Sumhuram, now known as Khor Rouri, today the ruins of this once-great port are a short drive from Salalah, the capital of Dhofar and the second-largest city in modern Oman.
From Salalah, Oman to the Yemeni border, the frankincense tree sprouts from the limestone rock as if mindless of the lack of nutrition, leafless and (for much of the year) pretty much lifeless, with its peeling bark and stumped branches. What makes the tree so special, of course, is its aromatic sap, known as ‘lubban’ in Arabic or ‘frankincense’ in English. The sap oozes in white- or amber-colored beads from incisions made in the bark and is left to harden in the sun. Frankincense has a natural oil content, allowing it to burn well, and the vapor is released by dropping a bead of the sap onto hot embers.
To this day, the pungent aroma wards away evil spirits or perfumes garments. It has other traditional uses too. The sap has medicinal qualities and was used in just about every prescription dispensed by the Greeks and the Romans. It is still used in parts of the Peninsula to treat a wide range of illnesses, including coughs and psychotic disorders, believed to be the result of witchcraft. Internationally, frankincense remains a part of many (particularly Christian) religious rites and is included as an ingredient in exotic perfumes.
Although the frankincense tree grows in Wadi Hadramawt in Yemen as well as in northern Somalia, the specimens of Dhofar in southern Oman have been famed since ancient times for producing the finest-quality sap. The tree favors the unique weather system of this corner of southern Arabia, just beyond the moisture-laden winds of the khareef “(summer season) but near enough to enjoy their cooling influence. As such it is notoriously difficult to root elsewhere.
The Birth and Growth of Islam (AD 570–1498). Given that today one out of every four people are Muslim, there can be no greater moment of historical importance on the Arabian Peninsula than the birth of the Prophet Mohammed in the year AD 570.
His father died before, became the poor ward of his grandfather and was given to a Bedouin foster mother to be raised in the desert. This gave him a sense of moderation and the preciousness of resources.
Mohammed went on caravans and became a trusted trader before returning to Mecca, which at that time was a large and prosperous city and the center of pilgrimage. Mecca was the home of the Kaaba, a sanctuary founded by Abraham but occupied by the images and idols of many other tribes and nations. The worship of the one-true god and the condemnation of idols was at the heart of Mohammed’s teaching and inevitably the Meccans took fright, forcing Mohammed to flee to Medina in 622. But the new religion of Islam quickly spread across the Peninsula and to the world beyond.
Staying in religious schools to avoid expensive hostelries, 14th-century Muslim pilgrim Ibn Battuta set the standard for budget travelling. Intending to perform hajj at the age of 20, his ‘gap year’ lasted 24 years. He clocked up an impressive 120,000km in Arabia and Asia, far out-travelling his contemporary, Marco Polo
The Europeans Arrive (1498–1650). Marco Polo and Ibn Battuta’s travels prefigured a revival in Western trading interests in Arabia and it wasn’t long before the pilgrim caravans of Mecca were once again transporting spices and drugs from the Orient to Europe via the ports of Istanbul and Venice.
A great Omani seafarer, Ahmed bin Majid, helped Vasco da Gama navigate the Cape of Good Hope in 1498 and, in good faith, told him of his own wondrous country on the Straits of Hormuz. The Portuguese understood the strategic significance of this and by 1507 Portugal had annexed the Yemeni island of Suqutra (Socotra), occupied Oman and colonized Bahrain. Portuguese forts regularly dot the coast of the Gulf today but were only interested in protecting their trade routes and made no impact on the interior of these countries at all. When they were eventually ousted by the mid-17th century, they left not much more than a legacy of military architecture – and the Maria Theresa dollar.
British ‘Protection’ (1650–1914). Muscat was known of respect and civility shown by all classes of its inhabitants to Europeans’. The intimate British involvement with Oman and the ‘Trucial States’, (the countries along the southern rim of the Gulf) over the next two centuries was founded on mutual benefit rather than solely on colonization and exploitation. On the one hand, the various treaties and ‘exclusive agreements’ that Britain signed with the sultan and emirs of the region kept the French at bay and safeguarded British trading routes with India. On the other hand, the British helped maintain the claims to sovereignty of the emerging Gulf emirates against marauding Turkish and Persian interests and from the powerful ambitions of the eventual founder of Saudi Arabia, Ibn Saud.
Famed 19th-century traveller Richard Burton learnt Arabic and entered Mecca disguised as a hajja (pilgrim). Nicknamed ‘Ruffian Dick’ by his contemporaries for his waywardness, he was obliged in his Personal Narrative of a Pilgrimage to Al-Madinah and Meccah to make his ‘love of adventure minister to the advance of geographical science’.
During WWI, British interests in the Gulf were threatened by the Ottomans. The sultan, siding with the Germans, declared jihad (holy war), calling on Muslims everywhere to rise up against the Allied powers of Britain, France and Russia. In response, the British persuaded Hussein bin Ali, the Grand Sherif of Mecca, to lead an Arab revolt against the Ottomans in exchange for a promise to make him ‘King of the Arabs’ once the conflict was over. To the famous disgust of British army officer TE Lawrence, the British negotiated with the French on the carving up of the Ottoman Empire and assisted the Zionist movement instead.
The American journalist Lydell Hart made ‘El-Lawrence’ into a media superhero. The Sunday Times of June 1968 hailed Lawrence as a ‘Prince of Mecca, riding across Arabia’. Hollywood did the rest.
Brits live in every corner of the Gulf and leaders across the region were educated in part in the UK. The special relationship between the British and the Arabs of the Peninsula has endured the trials and tribulations of history, and is one of the positive legacies of 19th-century colonialism.
Lawrence of Arabia. TE Lawrence’s own account of Arabian history, so eloquently described in The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, claims that Lawrence and General Allenby, the senior British Officer responsible for the Arab Campaign, single-handedly brought the modern Arabian Peninsula into being during the Arab Revolt from 1915 to 1918: But where are the Arabs in Lawrence’s account? Read Suleiman Mousa’s account of the campaign in TE Lawrence: An Arab View and you barely recognize the same moment in history: while Lawrence is busy taking credit for little skirmishes, larger battles led by the Arabs are only briefly mentioned; Lawrence arrives triumphant in cities where Arab leaders Feisal and Auda have been waiting for days. Far from the great white hunter, he is remembered in many Arab accounts as a sickly individual with boils who, like a spoof in a Western, mistakenly shot his own camel. But then such is history from an Arab perspective. We’ll never know whether Lawrence was center-stage or sideshow.
The Pearling Industry (1914–1930). Although pearls have come to be associated with Bahrain, they were harvested throughout the Gulf. Each region gave rise to a specific type of pearl. Pteria shells, or winged oysters, were extensively collected for their bluish mother-of-pearl off the coast of Ras al-Khaimah. The large shells known as ‘Bombay Shells’ were found in Omani waters and chiefly exported to London for pearl inlay and decorative cutlery. With an annual export of 2000 tonnes, worth UK£750,000, the most common pearl oyster of the Gulf was Pinctada radiata, collected off the coasts of Kuwait, Bahrain and the UAE.
Given the volume of the trade, it is not surprising that it supported the local economies of much of the Gulf. Trading in pearls has existed since the 3rd millennium BC but it was only in the 19th century, with the collapse of other trade routes in the region, that pearls assumed their economic value. In the 1920s, with what seemed like an insatiable international appetite for pearls, the trade reached its apex.
The pearling season began each year in late May. Fishermen remained at sea, through the blistering summer, without interruption until mid-October. Supplies were ferried out by dhow. Pearling was brutally hard work. Workers were divided into divers and pullers (who would hoist the divers back up again by rope). Neither were paid wages. Instead, they would receive a share of the total profits for the season. A puller’s share was half to two-thirds of a diver’s. Boat owners would usually advance money to their workers at the beginning of the season. But the divers were often unable to pay back these loans and got further into debt each year. As a result they were often bound to a particular boat owner for life. If a diver died, his sons were obliged to work off his debts. It was not unusual to see quite elderly men still working as divers.
Suddenly, around 1930, the Japanese invented a method of culturing pearls. This, combined with the Great Depression, caused the bottom to drop out of the international pearl market. The Peninsula’s great pearling industry petered out almost overnight; although the collapse brought great hardship to the Gulf in the decades before the discovery of oil, few had the heart to regret it.
Impact of Oil and Modernisation (1930–2010). Early in the 20th century, a rare resource was discovered on the Peninsula that was to change the face of the region forever. It is upon this resource that the super-modern cities of the Gulf have been crafted out of the sea on reclaimed land, and upon which the nations of Arabia have been pulled by the sandal-straps into the 21st century.
Within a few years almost every ruler in the Gulf had given some kind of oil concession in an attempt to bolster their finances. The region’s nascent industry was suspended temporarily during WWII but resumed soon after, increasing output to rival that of Iran, the world’s biggest producer by 1960.
In the 1960s and ’70s the new wealth, and the threat of cutting off oil supplies to Europe and the US, gave Middle Eastern countries an international influence they hadn’t enjoyed for centuries. After each embargo, a surge in oil prices increased both their wealth and their power, triggering the first wave of an enormous building boom in the Gulf that has continued almost unabated for half a century. Western expatriates flocked to the region, providing engineering and financial expertise while hundreds of thousands of Asian expats were brought in as manual labor. This change in demographics has left a legacy which continues to have profound effects on the indigenous populations: on the one hand it has resulted in tolerant, multicultural societies and greatly enhanced infrastructure; on the other hand, it has led to an outnumbering in some countries of the indigenous Arab population and a difficulty in all countries (bar Yemen) of ensuring work opportunities for locals.
When the bottom fell out of the oil market in 1985, to varying degrees all Gulf countries had trouble keeping up their building programs while maintaining the generous welfare states that their people had come to expect. This crisis, together with ongoing fears about reaching peak production, and the shock factor of the global economic downturn that began in 2008, have had hidden benefits, however, forcing each country of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) to diversify its economy.
But the days of black gold are not over yet. Exploration continues across the region together with investment in research into ever more sophisticated ways of extraction such as fracking. Despite the new hunt for renewable energies such as solar, wind, wave and waste-to-energy power, it’s unlikely that any of these green technologies will replace oil in the collective memory of the region. Oil, after all, has given Arabia back its place in the world.
Today. With the exception of Yemen, the Arabian Peninsula is enjoying a rebirth of former confidence and strength, marked by investment in culture, education, health care and infrastructure, and a gentle relaxation of the strictly autocratic regimes of the mid-20th century. Guided by the Islamic faith, each country of the Peninsula is feeling towards a modern society, sharing many of the aims of the Western world while endeavoring to maintain an Arab identity.
Rapid Change. It is hard to think of another region where the pace of change has been so phenomenal: Travel by donkey, education reserved for the well-connected, housing hot and inadequate, high infant mortality and life expectancy low have,
within the space of 50 years, the Peninsula has changed beyond recognition. “This rapid growth is of course “largely due to the discovery of oil, but it is also due to a willingness to embrace modernity and the complex technologies it involves. Computer competence, e-governance, and a mobile-phone culture are commonplace across the region.
Urbanization. Rapid change comes at a cost. While there’s pride in recent achievements, there are frustrations too. There’s resentment, for example, towards Arabia’s ever-growing expatriate population who helped build the region’s infrastructure but who are now reluctant to leave.
Industry has drawn people away from their villages and disrupted the time-honored patterns of rural life. Those on the fringe of encroaching urbanization find the traditions they valued are undermined, leaving little recognizable of a Bedouin heritage. For those remaining in remote areas, there is disappointment at the perceived exclusion from the benefits bestowed on an urban life.
The Arab Spring. “Frustration with the process of modernization and the perceived threat of encroaching ideologies inevitably leads to political repercussions – a situation that Al-Qaeda and other fundamentalist groups have been quick to exploit.
In 2011, with Libya, Tunisia, Egypt and Syria in turmoil, the Arabian Peninsula witnessed its own Arab Spring. Mostly propelled by students who felt sympathy with the democratic aspirations of their North African counterparts, there were minor protests in Oman, more pronounced problems in Bahrain and an ousting of the president in Yemen. But while it is convenient to lump the unrest into the collective term ‘Arab Spring’, the reasons for the uprisings in each of those countries were primarily local in nature, informed by domestic concerns such as religious sectarianism, unemployment and a minimum wage.
Relationship with the West. Besides, democracy is not the only way of effecting good governance. Oman, as reported in the UK Guardian for example, was named as the ‘most improved country in the world over the past 40 years’ by the UN “Development Fund. According to many commentators (not least former US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton who praised the ‘remarkable gains’ made under Oman’s absolute monarch, Sultan Qaboos), the countries of the Peninsula, with their prosperous, well-fed, well-educated, well-housed and mostly peaceful populations, have been well served by what is commonly termed ‘benign dictatorship’. Interestingly, this is a subject now taught in some business schools as part of the project management process. In some ways, the emerging countries of the Peninsula are just that: a project in progress in which, over the past half century, a strong leader with a clear vision and an unquestioned mandate to govern has been behind the countries’ phenomenal growth and modernization. In an article in the Financial Times in 2011, distinguished journalist Robert Kaplan describes how the legitimacy of Arabian dictatorship is built on a social contract that allows for autocratic decisions to be made in the public good for the advancement of society – a legitimacy ‘built on royal tradition’ that aligns with the historical experience of the countries concerned.
It has not gone without comment in the media of the region that the only multiparty democracy in the region, Yemen, is the least developed in terms of infrastructure, education and health care. Many local commentators predict that its descent into virtual civil war will be hard to resolve without unconditional leadership acceptable to all tribal factions.
Attitudes towards democracy partially inform the region’s relationship with the West. For strict Muslims, as conversations with local mutuwa (religious police) reveal, democracy is often seen as the politics of the West, synonymous with liberal standards and moral permissiveness. Some younger Arabs see democracy as the pathway to free speech but, as the Arab Spring in Oman demonstrated, there is limited understanding about the attendant responsibilities that temper democratic freedom. But time will tell. Now that a flavor of democracy is enjoyed in greater representation on national assemblies, for example, perhaps the old social contract built on traditional authority rather than on public opinion will, as Kaplan predicts, simply ‘peter out as…society advances’.
Current Challenges. In foreign politics, the insurgency in Yemen, an Al-Qaeda stronghold, threatens to provoke Saudi into conflict, as competing ideologies battle for a foothold in the only impoverished corner of the Peninsula. In domestic politics, the Arab Spring uprisings still grumble on in Bahrain and Kuwait and people have become less tolerant if change does not favour their vision of the future.
In the economy, all countries across the region are scared, not so much that oil reserves have reached their peak, but that new methods of extraction are reconfiguring the market. This has placed a much greater emphasis on diversification, building up industries such as trade and commerce, benefited by the Peninsula’s location as a hub between East and West. Tourism is another area of prime emphasis, albeit hampered by security concerns in neighboring countries such as Egypt, Iraq and Syria.
One of the biggest challenges is the process of swapping to an indigenous workforce. It takes time for the benefits of a modernized education system to produce home-grown expertise and there is resistance from some immigrant communities to train their local replacements. Without progress in the human resource development of the region, however, there is concern that a two-tier society will inevitably lead to further resentment and instability.
Balancing the Future. Peninsula Arabs have encountered the shock of the new, anger at the passing of valued traditions, and the rejection of external pressures, and the familiar cycle has concluded with a general acceptance of modernization. The process will only be complete, however, when each country finds a way in which to honor its heritage and give a greater “sense of inclusion to its citizens. The establishment of majlis ashura (public representation) in public policy is a good start and the inclusion of women as they join the ranks of government ministers (except in Saudi) is also viewed favorably. Propelled ahead of male colleagues by a proven propensity for education and with less commitment to wusta (nepotism), Arabia’s women are seen as the change agents of the future.
There is one anchor in this fomenting region that has attracted academics, enthralled creative minds, enriched Western study of mathematics, medicine and literature for centuries, and that is Islam. TE Lawrence summed up the spiritual core of the Peninsula thus: ‘It is the old, old civilization, which has refined itself clear of household gods and half the trappings which ours hastens to assume.’ It will be interesting to see to what extent that spiritual core can withstand the conflicting pressures of a global, internet age.
Arabia & the Arabs: From the Bronze Age to the Coming of Islam (Robert Hoyland)
Frankincense & Myrrh (Nigel Groom)
Orientalism (Edward Said) For a seminal read on the subject of Western perceptions of the Arabic Orient, this is the definitive text. In this compelling deconstruction of Western stereotypes regarding Arabia, Said famously defines the West’s contrary relationship with the Middle East as one of ‘otherness.
Nine Parts of Desire, by Geraldine Brooks, is an objective and well-balanced investigation into the lives of women under Islam, covering various countries of the Middle East and exposing some of the many myths regarding the treatment of women in the Arab world.
The Thousand and One Nights, translated by Richard Burton, is a collection of tales (including Ali Baba and Aladdin) that originate from Arabia, India and Persia. They are told, night by night, by the beautiful, beguiling narrator, Sheherazade to save herself from beheading by a vengeful king.
Contemporary Architecture in the Arab States (Udo Kultermann)
Islamic Arts (Jonathan Bloom & Sheila Blair)
Craft Heritage of Oman (Richardson & Dorr)
Inside Al Qaeda: Global Network of Terror (Rohan Gunaratna)
A History of the Middle East (Peter Mansfield)
Seven Pillars of Wisdom (TE Lawrence; 1935) Superb evocation of the desert during the Arab Campaign 1915–18.
Arabian Sands (Wilfred Thesiger; 1959) Captures the Bedouin way of life before it is lost forever.
ArabiaThrough the Looking Glass (Jonathan Raban; 1980) Perceptive descriptions of the Gulf states, challenging stereotypes.
Nine Parts of Desire: The Hidden World of Islamic Women (Geraldine Brooks; 1994) Revealing account by Australian journalist living under the veil.
The Western stereotype of the male Peninsula inhabitant has changed over the last century. Where once he was characterized as gaunt, austere in habit and fierce of temper, he’s now portrayed as rich and extravagant; invariably “overweight; an owner of camels, multiple wives, many children and several cars – in that order – and robed in sheet and teacloth. Male youths are portrayed as wiry and neurotic, wearing Semtex vests. Women only feature in relation to the hijab (veil) debate and in cartoons they appear as indefinable black shapes.
These stereotypes are thankfully being exposed for what they are by the growing multiculturalism of many Western communities and the greater exposure to Arab ‘customs and manners’ through the media. Nonetheless, it’s worth investigating to what extent any of these stereotypes retain a grain of truth.
Guests are usually seen to the door, or even to the end of the corridor or garden. Traditionally this represents the safe passage of guests across your tribal territory. If you have Arab visitors, make sure you do the same!
Walk through the gold souqs and you’ll see women with Gucci handbags, buying diamonds and pearls. Park outside the Ritz-Carlton in Manama or the Burj al-Arab in Dubai and you’ll be embarrassed to be driving a Toyota Echo. Undoubtedly, huge private fortunes have been made in the oil rush and building expansion.
But that isn’t the whole picture. Universal education and the mass media have increased expectations, and people who were content with one floor now want two. Cement and steel prices have doubled in a decade and the burgeoning Arab ‘middle class’ frets over securing loans to finish the house. If shopping before pay day is anything to go by, most families are left with little at the end of the month.
The rest of the picture is completed by stepping out of the city altogether. Lives in mountain villages, in desert oases, on the dunes or in coastal fishing villages may seem to have been little impacted by city incomes, but then you spot the satellite dish attached to the barasti (palm frond) walls; the electricity poles marching up the wadis; the communally owned truck that has allowed settlement to replace nomadic existence “cation and healthcare: this is the real wealth of the region today and it is remarkably evenly spread given the challenges of geography and topography.
Health & Life Expectancy. A more modern lifestyle, be it in the city or the interior, has brought changes to the health of many Peninsula people. Not all those changes are for the better.
Local epidemiologists identify that the disproportionately high incidence of diabetes in the region has grown out of the continuation of a traditional diet (where dates and sweetmeats like halwa play an inextricable role in matters of hospitality). The statistics regarding diabetes in Arabia are alarming: five of the 10 countries with the world’s highest rates of diabetes are in the Peninsula, namely the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.
Combined with an increase in popularity of a newly imported fast-food culture, high in sugar and salt content and considerably less exercise in the newly urbanized lives of many Peninsula Arabs and it’s easy to see the severe challenge faced by healthcare systems across the region (with the possible exception of Yemen).
But it’s not all doom and gloom! Wander the terraces of southern Arabia 20 years ago, and you’d see women bent double in the fields, baked by the sun, arthritic in the mud, or weighed down with herbage, trudging back to their homes, pausing to stack stones in the crumbling terrace walls. For many of the Peninsula inhabitants, it’s pointless being nostalgic about the demise of hard manual labor, even if a modern lifestyle comes at the price of ‘modern’ diseases such as hypertension.
Population & Ethnic Diversity. In the Gulf, names are all important. Names tell a lot about who is from where, and each country is acutely mindful of such distinctions: with a name like that, he must be a Baluchi (not real Emirati); he speaks Swahili so he must be Zanzibari (not real Omani); he’s from the coast (not real Yemeni)’. And so it goes on until you wonder if there’s any such thing as a ‘real anybody’. Such gossiping about ethnicity makes you realize that Arab allegiances are linked to tribe before nation.
Centuries of trading and pilgrimage have resulted in an extraordinarily mixed population and only a few pockets of people, such as the Jibbalis of southern Oman – the descendents of the ancient people of Ad – or Jews in the northern parts of Yemen, can claim ethnic ‘purity’.
Oddly, for the visitor, it is not always Arabs you’ll notice much anyway. The indigenous population of the entire Peninsula numbers less than 50 million out of a total population of 78 million. In Saudi and Oman non-nationals account for 10% and 15% respectively of the population but this figure rises to 25% in Yemen, 55% in Bahrain, 66% in Kuwait, 80% in Qatar and 81% in UAE.
Expat Pecking Order. Though officially treated equally, there’s clearly a pecking order among the Peninsula’s expats. At the top of the order are the Westerners. For the hundreds of thousands of Western expats, life is a tax-free merry-go-round, usually with rent and annual airfare home included in generous packages. The life, at least in the big Gulf cities, includes sun, sea, sand and a good social life in a lifestyle few could afford back home.
Next come the middle-income workers from other Middle Eastern countries. Their first and foremost preoccupation is to save money. Typically these expats stay just long enough to stockpile enough dollars to build a house back home and send their children to college. In some countries, such as Egypt, Jordan and Yemen, remittances from nationals working abroad constitute the backbone of the economy.
Languishing at the bottom are the laborers from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. While a minority (around 5% to 10%) enjoy a standard of living similar to the Western and Peninsula communities, the majority are manual laborers. Conditions for migrant workers in the Gulf states have been condemned by Human Rights organizations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. For male migrant workers, conditions include digging roads in 45°C heat or working on building sites that lack safety provisions. Women employed as domestic servants are often required to work long hours for wages much lower than those paid to nationals of the Gulf states. Despite these conditions, a single laborer may be able to support his entire extended family in his home country from his monthly pay packet. Some Asians remain on the Peninsula for up to 20 years, only seeing their families for two months once every two years. Recognizing the problem of hardship among many members of the Asian expat community, GCC labor ministers discuss a standardized employment contract designed to protect migrant workers’ rights.
The large presence of other nationals on the Peninsula came about after the discovery of oil. Hundreds of thousands of expatriate workers were brought in to help develop the region’s industries, and provide skills and knowledge in creating a modern infrastructure. Although none of these nationals were originally permitted citizenship, many have stayed a lifetime and set up businesses under local sponsorship, changing the demographics of the entire Peninsula.
The issue now is how to reduce the dependence on expat labor and train the local population to fill their place: inevitably, few expats willingly train locals to take over their jobs. Equally, in some of the wealthier Gulf countries, there is a reluctance from locals to take on manual labor and a distaste for jobs in the service industry.
Bedouin Roots. It’s easy to underestimate the Bedouin heritage of Arab society if your visit is concentrated on the big cities of the Gulf. Yet even here there are weekend escapes to the desert (in Oman), a new falcon souq (in Doha), and tents set up outside the house (in Kuwait). These are all indicative of a strong attachment to an ancient culture that runs through all the countries of the Peninsula.
The attitude towards the camel is an interesting case in point. The donkey played just as important a role in transportation in the mountains of the Peninsula, but no one breeds donkeys for fun. Camels, on the other hand, are as prevalent as ever and in some corners of Arabia (such as Dhofar) are proliferating at such a speed (due to their leisurely modern lifestyle), they are threatening the fragile ecology of their habitat. Camels evoke ancient nomadic lifestyles, the symbol of community through hardship and endurance – the inheritance, in short, of Bedouin roots.
Encounter the Bedu in Sharqiya Sands, Oman, Khor al-Adaid, Qatarand the Interior, Kuwait and Rub al-Khali, Saudi Arabia, Oman & UAE
The term ‘Bedu’ (Bedouin in singular and adjectival form) refers not so much to an ethnic group as to a lifestyle: liberty, independence, and simplicity which he has lost by refinement’. City Arabs today, stressed by familiar modern anxieties regarding wealth and how to keep it, are similarly wistful about a bygone era, even if they are more likely to be the descendants of townspeople and seafarers.
Most Bedu have modernized their existence with “4WD trucks (it’s not unusual to find the camel travelling by truck these days), fodder from town (limiting the need to keep moving), and purified water from bowsers. Some have mobile phones and satellite TV, and most listen to the radio. Many no longer move at all. Bedouin customs, dating from the earliest days of Islam, remain pretty much unchanged, however – especially their legendary hospitality towards strangers.
Living arrangements tend to stay the same too with tents generally divided into a haram (forbidden area) for women and an area reserved for the men. The men’s section also serves as the public part of the house, where guests are treated to coffee and dates, or meals. It’s here that all the news and gossip – a crucial part of successful survival in a hostile environment – is passed along the grapevine.
The Bedouin family is a close-knit unit. The women do most of the domestic work, including fetching water (sometimes requiring walks of many kilometers), baking bread and weaving. They are also often the first to help pull, dig and drive a tourist’s stuck 4WD out of the soft sand. The men are traditionally the providers in times of peace, and fierce warriors in times of war.
Meaning ‘nomadic’, the name Bedu is today a bit of a misnomer. Though thought to number several hundred thousand, very few Bedu are still truly nomadic, though a few hang on to the old ways. After pitching their distinct black, goat-hair tents – the beit ash-sha’ar (literally ‘house of hair’) – they graze their goats, sheep or camels in an area for several months. When the sparse desert fodder runs out, it’s time to move on again, allowing the land to regenerate naturally.
The hospitality of the Bedu is legendary, even in a region known for its generosity. Part of the ancient “and sacrosanct Bedouin creed is that no traveller in need of rest or food should be turned away. Likewise, a traveller assumes the assured protection of his hosts for a period of three days, and is guaranteed a safe passage through tribal territory. Even today the Bedu escort travellers safely across the desert in Yemen (though now you pay for the service).
The philosophy is simple: you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours – only in the desert it’s a matter of survival. Such a code of conduct ensures the survival of all in a difficult environment with scant resources. It allows the maintenance of a nomadic lifestyle and the continuation of trade. It’s a kind of survival, in other words, of the most generous.
The Bedu are known for their sense of humor which they list – alongside courage, alertness and religious faith – as one of the four secrets of life, encouraging tolerance and humility.
Marriage & the Role of Women. Islam allows men to have four wives, but only if a man can treat each equally. In reality, there are few Peninsula Arabs who can afford the luxury of two houses, two sets of gold, two extended families of in-laws – let alone four. Nor, with the greater demands of the modern workplace, can many aspire to satisfying more than one partner in equal share – though only wives will let you in on this secret.
And it’s not just about expense either. While law permits a man four wives, even two centuries ago no ‘man of quality’ would make use of this and no ‘woman of rank’ would suffer it. In fact, Peninsula women are far more empowered than might be supposed, and they don’t like sharing their husband and his income any more than Western women. If the wife doesn’t like something, she can and often does make the man’s life a misery and, as controller of the household, often co-opts the children into her camp. Divorce is easily enacted and is becoming less of a taboo, especially in Oman and the Gulf countries, because women will put up with less these days. Modern Peninsula women are educated, usually far harder working at college than men and therefore often more successful in the workplace. They are entitled to earn and keep their own income (unlike the man who surrenders his salary to the household) and as such have an independence unthinkable by their grandmothers.
Rural Peninsula families comprise an average of six children. Children were traditionally seen as a resource, not an expense – another pair of hands to work the land or provide support in old age. For many they are now seen as a status symbol of both wealth and fertility.
The Europeans are mistaken in thinking the state of marriage so different among the Mussulmans from what it is with Christian nations, Arabian women enjoy a great deal of liberty, and often a great deal of power, in their families.
It’s hard to imagine women letting go of their tight-knit sisterhood, but now that they also want a slice of the man’s traditional role too, something’s got to give. It is partly recognition of this fact that has led to such heated internal debate among Arab women across the region. On the one hand, discussion in Saudi Arabia focuses on fundamental women’s rights – to vote, to drive, to travel unescorted by male relatives, to represent and be represented in a public forum. On the other hand, in UAE and Oman (where equality of education has led to an equality of expectation), it focuses on issues familiar to a Western context such as breaking through the glass ceiling, how to train in traditionally male-oriented disciplines like engineering but still be able to pick and choose over shift hours or working on site..
With more women graduating from some of the top universities across the region than men, inevitably questions are being asked about primary carers in the family and the psychological fall-out on men whose once unquestioned authority is being undermined by poor performance relative to their female counterparts.
Family Size & Welfare. The family, guided by Muslim principles, is still at the center of the Arab way of life. The family is an extended unit often comprising whole villages, united around a common tribal name. Avoiding actions that may bring shame to the family is of paramount importance. Saving face is therefore more than a reluctance to admit a mistake – it’s an expression of unwillingness to make a family vulnerable to criticism. Equally, promotion or success is not calculated in individual terms, but in the benefits it bestows on the family. Of course, everyone knows someone who can help in the collective good, and accruing wusta (influence) is a Peninsula pastime.
The efforts of one generation are reflected in the provision of education and opportunity for the next. This comes at a cost and few Arabs these days can afford the large families of up to 12 children of a decade ago; indeed the average is now around 3.3 children.
The governments of each country have made generous provision for families across the region – in terms of free education and healthcare – but the resources won’t last forever and the younger generation are beginning to see that they have to work hard to secure the same opportunities for their children.
Travel & Pilgrimage. When tax is minimal and petrol cheaper than bottled water, owning a car or two isn’t the extravagance one “might imagine. The car is a status symbol but it’s also a symbol of travel. Arabs love to travel – to family members at the weekend, foreign countries for honeymoons, and of course to Mecca for hajj or umrah (literally ‘little pilgrimage’).
Dress & Fashion. The very thought of calling the quintessentially cool and elegant dress of the Arabs ‘sheet and teacloth’ would appall most inhabitants of the Peninsula. Men take huge pride in their costume, which, in its simplicity and uniformity, is intended to transcend wealth and origin.
A loose headscarf, known as gutra, is worn by many Peninsula males: in the Gulf States it is of white cloth, while in western Kuwait and Saudi Arabia it is checked. The black head rope used to secure the gutra is called agal . It’s said to originate in the rope the Bedu used to tie up their camels at night. The Omanis and Yemenis usually wear a turban, wrapped deftly about a cap. In Oman these are pastel-hued and decorated with intricate and brightly coloured embroidery.
Most Peninsula men also wear the floor-length ‘shirt-dress’, which in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Qatar is “known as a thobe, and in Kuwait, the UAE and Oman as a dishdasha. Most are white, and some have collars and cuffs, while others are edged with tassels and white-thread embroidery at the neck. On ceremonial occasions, the dress is completed with a finely wrought belt and ceremonial dagger, and a silk outer garment. In Yemen and cold areas in the winter, men wear tailored jackets.
Women’s dress is more varied. It often comprises a colourful long dress or an embroidered tunic with trousers and heavily decorated ankle cuffs. In the cities, modern dress is common. Over the top, women usually wear a black gown known as an abeyya . This can either be worn loose and cover the head as well (as in Saudi Arabia) or it can be worn as a fashion item, tailored to the body and spangled with diamantes (as in Oman). In Yemen, the women’s outer costume comprises a startling layer of coloured cotton cloth.
All Arab women cover their hair but they don’t all wear the burka (veil) – in Oman and the UAE, they mostly do not cover the face. Veils can be of a thin gauze completely covering the face; a cloth which covers the face but not the eyes; or a mask concealing the nose, cheeks and part of the mouth – in Sana‘a, women wear striking red-and-white tie-dye cloth to cover the face and in the sands in Oman, a gold-coloured peaked mask is favoured.
The 18th-century traveller, Lady Montagu, noted that Arab women were more at liberty to follow their own will than their European counterparts and that the abeyya (what she describes as the ‘black disguise’) made it easier for women to take a lover.
Many Western people assume that men force women to cover up. In fact, this is generally not the case except in some extreme societies in Arabia. Women often opt for such coverings in order to pass more comfortably through male company. Nor is it a stated part of Islam. Indeed, Bedu women maintain that the custom, which protects the skin and hair from the harsh penalties of sun and sand, predates Islam.
Arabian Youth. They wear baseball caps with the peak reversed, they’ve got the latest iPads and smartphones, they stay out late with friends and are rude to their elders. A few drink, fewer take drugs. They watch unsavoury things on satellite TV and they communicate ‘inappropriately’ via the internet. They sleep a lot and aren’t interested in learning. In this regard, Arab youth are no different from any other youth. The difference in Arab countries is that really wanton behaviour is rare and the period of abandonment relatively short.
Religious Zeal. Only a tiny minority of people on the Peninsula are involved in religious fundamentalism, and most of those “channel their zeal into peaceful attempts to reconcile the liberties of modern life with the traditional values of Islam. Those who resort to violence to accomplish largely political aims are mistrusted by their own communities and considered misguided by most religious leaders. It is unfortunate that this small minority gain maximum media coverage and are the people upon whom the entire culture of the mostly peaceful, amiable, adaptable and tolerant Arabian Peninsula is judged.
Tea and Talk. A dewaniya (gathering), usually conducted at someone’s home – in a tent or on cushions just outside it, to be precise – is an important aspect of Gulf life, and any visitor who has the chance to partake in one will find it the best opportunity to observe Arab social life firsthand. The object of the gathering, which has its origin in Bedouin traditions of hospitality, is to drink endless cups of hot, sweet tea – oh, and to chew the political cud, of course. It is usually a ‘man thing’. As one Kuwaiti woman explained, the women of the house are usually too busy living life to waste time discussing it.
Why the Low Crime Rate? Strict codes of moral conduct expounded by Islam, a legal system rigorously enforced, traditional Arab values and ancient concepts of honor.
If you chose one feature that distinguishes art in the Arabian Peninsula (and in the Arab world in general) from that of Western tradition, it would have to be the close integration of function with form. In other words, most Arab art has evolved with a purpose. That purpose could be as practical as embellishing the prow of a boat with a cowrie shell to ward off ‘evil eye’, or as nebulous as creating intricate and beautiful patterns to intimate the presence of God and invite spiritual contemplation. Purpose is an element that threads through all Peninsula art – craft, music, architecture and poetry.
Poetry. Nothing touches the heart of a Peninsula Arab quite like poetry. Traditionally dominating Arab literature, all the best-known figures of classical Arabic and Persian literature are poets, including the famed Omar Khayyam, the 11th-century composer of rub’ai (quatrains), and the 8th-century Baghdadi poet, Abu Nuwas. All great Arab poets were regarded as possessing knowledge forbidden to ordinary people and, as such, they served the purpose of bridging the human and spirit worlds.
The Son of a Duck is a Floater, by Arnander and Skipworth, is a fun collection of Arab sayings with English equivalents. It’s worth buying just to see how wisdom is universal – not to mention the thoroughly enjoyable illustrations.
To this day, poetry recitals play an important part in all national celebrations, and even the TV-watching young are captivated by a skillfully intoned piece of verse.
Poetry is part and parcel of the great oral tradition of storytelling that informs the literature of all Peninsula “countries, the roots of which lie with the Bedu. Stories told by nomadic elders to the wide-eyed wonder of the young serve not just as after-dinner entertainment, but as a way of binding generations together in a collective oral history. As such, storytelling disseminates the principles of Islam and of tribal and national identity. It extols the virtues of allegiance, valour, endurance and hospitality – virtues that make life in a harsh environment tolerable.
Oral Tradition. For the nomadic Bedu of Arabia, life is lived on the move. Permanence is virtually unknown – even the footsteps that marked their passing shift with the sands. The artistic expression of their culture has evolved to be similarly portable – weaving that can be rolled up and stowed on a camel, beadwork that can be tucked in a pocket, stories unfurled round the campfire at night.
Bedu tales, and their endless digressions, serve not just as entertainment. Allegories and parables “are used to clarify a situation, to offer tactful advice to a friend, or to alert someone diplomatically to trouble or wrongdoing. More often, they lampoon corrupt leaders and offer a satirical commentary on current affairs – particularly those of the mistrusted ‘townspeople’. They can be very funny, highly bawdy and verging on the libellous, depending on the persuasions of the teller.
On the Peninsula, there is said to be a tale for every situation. Travellers may be surprised at how often the Bedu resort to proverbs, maxims or stories during the course of normal conversation. It is said that the first proverb of all is: ‘While a man may tell fibs, he may never tell false proverbs’!
Sadly, the modern world has encroached on the oral tradition. The advent of TV and other forms of entertainment has meant that the role that storytelling plays in Bedouin life has diminished. Now this valuable oral patrimony is in danger of disappearing forever.
Music. Like the oral tradition of storytelling, Arabian song and dance have also evolved for a purpose. Generally, music was employed to distract from hardship – like the songs of the seafarers marooned on stagnant Gulf waters, or the chanting of fishermen hauling in their nets. There are also harvest songs and love ballads, all of which are either sung unaccompanied or to syncopated clapping or drum beats. East African rhythms, introduced into Arab music from Arab colonies, lend much Peninsula music a highly hypnotic quality, and songs can last for over an hour.
While the austere Wahhabi and Ibadi sects discourage singing and dancing, no wedding or national celebration in the Peninsula would be the same without them. Men “dance in circles, flexing their swords or ceremonial daggers while jumping or swaying. If they get really carried away, volleys of gunfire are exchanged above the heads of the crowd. Women have a tradition of dancing for the bride at weddings. Unobserved by men, they wear magnificent costumes (or modern ball gowns) and gyrate suggestively as if encouraging the bride towards the marital bed.
It shouldn’t be supposed that just because traditional music plays a big part in contemporary Arab life, it’s the only form of music. Pop music, especially of the Amr Diab type, is ubiquitous and nightclubs are popular. There’s even a classical orchestra in Oman and there are bagpipe bands.
Crafts. If there’s one area in which function and form are most noticeably linked, it’s in the craft traditions of the Peninsula – in the jewellery, silversmithing, weaving, embroidery and basket-making crafts that form the rich craft heritage of the Peninsula. The heavy silver jewelry, so distinctively worn by Bedouin women, was designed not just as a personal adornment but as a form of portable wealth. Silver amulets, containing rolled pieces of parchment or paper, bear protective inscriptions from the Quran, to guarantee the safety of the wearer. At the end of the life of a piece of jewelry, it is traditionally melted down to form new pieces as an ultimate gesture of practicality.
The sad fact of practical craft is that once the need for it has passed, there is little incentive to maintain the skills. Where’s the point of potters in Al-Hofuf, Saudi Arabia and Bahla, Oman making clay ewers when everyone drinks water from branded plastic bottles? Aware of this fact, many governments throughout the region have encouraged the setting up of local craft associations in the hope of keeping alive such an important part of their heritage. Some of the best-supported ventures in the region are the Bedouin weaving project at Sadu House in Kuwait City and the women’s centers in Manama and Abu Dhabi.
The Omani Heritage Documentation Project is another worthy enterprise. Launched in 1996 to document Oman’s great craft heritage and envisage ways to ensure its survival, it resulted after eight years of study in a two-volume book, The Craft Heritage of Oman , which has become the definitive guide to Oman’s cottage industries. It is an inspiration to anyone with an interest in the arts and crafts of Oman and an invitation to other Peninsula countries to follow suit.
Ultimately, however, when a craft is hollowed of its function, when it provides a mere curiosity of the past or is redefined to provide souvenirs for tourists, it becomes only a shadow of itself.
Genuine Bedoin – Made in India? One of the highlights of the Peninsula is undoubtedly a trip to the covered souqs and bazaars, some “of which (especially in Jeddah, Kuwait, Doha, Muscat and Sana‘a) have occupied the same chaotic labyrinthine quarters for hundreds of years. In these forerunners of the shopping mall, merchants sit behind piles of dates and olives, gold, frankincense and myrrh, in small shops often no bigger than a broom cupboard. Passing in between them are the water-sellers, itinerant cloth vendors, carters (complete with wheelbarrow in Kuwait) and carriers.
The scene (of haggling and gossiping, pushing and shoving, laughing and teasing) may not have changed much in centuries, but many of the goods have. Mostly practical items are on offer – aluminium pans, plastic trays, imports from China – but if you look hard, you can usually find items of traditional craft, even in the most modern of souqs.
There are kilims (rugs) and carpets; cotton clothing including gutras (white head cloth), thobes or dishdashas (man’s shirt dresses) and embroidered dresses; Bedouin woven bags; decorative daggers and swords; copperware and brassware; olive and “cedar woodcarvings; kohl (black eyeliner); old trunks and boxes; water pipes; embroidered tablecloths and cushion covers; leather and suede. But, the question is, is it real?
All tourists have seen them: the Roman coins from Syria, the Aladdin lamps from Cairo, the Bedouin jewelry torn from the brow of a virgin bride – the stories attempt to make up for the shameless lack of authentic provenance on the part of the item. While the region is home to some magnificent craft, only relatively few pieces make their way to places like Souq Waqif in Qatar, Mutrah Souq in Oman or Bab al-Bahrain in Bahrain. The vast majority of items on sale to tourists is imported from India, Pakistan and Iran and either sold as such, or more frequently passed off as ‘genuine Bedouin’ by less-scrupulous shopkeepers.
Styles across the region vary so considerably, it’s hard to “talk about Peninsula architecture under one umbrella – there’s the multistorey mud edifices of Yemen and Southern Saudi; the round mud huts more akin to sub-Saharan architecture on the Tihama; the barasti (palm leaf) dwellings of eastern Arabia; the coral buildings of Jeddah; and the gypsum decoration of Gulf design.
In common with other arts, Peninsula architecture is traditionally steered by purpose. The local climate plays an important role in this. The wind towers of the Gulf, for example, not only look attractive, they function as channels of cooler air; the gaily painted window frames of Yemeni and Asir dwellings in Saudi help waterproof the adobe. Security is another issue: the positioning of forts around and on top of rocky outcrops in the Hajar Mountains gives a foundation more solid than anything bricks and mortar might produce. And then there’s the question of space: in the mountain areas of Saudi, Yemen and Oman, whole villages appear to be suspended in air, perched on top of inaccessible promontories, storeys piled high to save from building on precious arable land.
The one ‘art form’ that a visitor to the Peninsula can hardly miss is the modern tower block. In many Gulf cities, cranes almost outnumber buildings in the race to build the most extravagant confection of glass and steel. In the process, Peninsula architecture has become diverted from the traditional principle of functionality. Take the magnificent Emirates Palace in Abu Dhabi, for example, where you need to pack your trainers to get from bed to breakfast.
Increasingly, architects are expected to refer to the visual vocabulary of Arab art: hence the pointed windows, false balconies, wooden screens and tent motifs of modern buildings across the Peninsula. Perhaps this is because many traditional buildings, with their economy of style and design, achieve something that modern buildings often do not – they blend in harmoniously with their environment.
Wind Towers. Called barjeel in Arabic, wind towers are the Gulf States’ own unique form of non-electrical air-conditioning. In most of the region’s cities a handful still exist, sometimes attached to private homes, and sometimes carefully preserved or reconstructed at museums. In Sharjah (UAE) a set of massive wind towers is used to cool the modern Central Market building.
Traditional wind towers rise 5m or 6m above a house. They are usually built of wood or stone but can also be made from canvas. The tower is open on all four sides and so can catch even the breathiest of breezes. These mere zephyrs are channelled down a central shaft and into the room below. In the process, the air speeds up and is cooled. The cooler air already in the tower shaft pulls in and subsequently cools the hotter air outside through a simple process of convection. Sitting beneath a wind tower on a hot and humid day, the temperature is noticeably cooler with a consistent breeze even when the air outside feels heavy and still.
There can be no greater example of function at the heart of art than Islamic art. For a Muslim, Islamic art remains first and foremost an expression of faith, and to this day people are cautious of ‘art for art’s sake’, or art as an expression of the self without reference to community.
Calligraphy. A good example of instructive or inspirational visual art is calligraphy. Arabic is not just a language for Arabs – for Muslims throughout the world it is the language of the Quran, so it’s a cohesive and unifying factor, imbued with a reverence that is hard for non-Muslims to understand. Islamic calligraphy, the copying of God’s own words, is seen by many as a pious act and remains to this day the highest aesthetic practiced in the Arab world.
Mosque. The most visible expression of Islamic art, however, is surely the mosque. It too is built on mostly functional principles. To this day the basic plan in providing a safe, cool and peaceful haven for worship has changed little – there’s the open sahn (courtyard), the arcaded riwaq (portico), and the covered, often domed, prayer hall. A vaulted niche in the wall is called the mihrab; this serves to indicate the qibla, or direction of Mecca, towards which Muslims must face when they pray. The minbar (pulpit) is traditionally reached by three steps. The Prophet is said to have preached his sermons from the third step. Abu Bakr, his successor, chose to preach from the second step, and this is where most imams (prayer leaders) stand or sit today when preaching the Friday sermon.
The first minarets appeared long after Mohammed’s death. Prior to that time, the muezzin (prayer caller) often stood on a rooftop or some other elevation so that he could be heard by as many townsfolk as possible.
Traditionally, mosques had an ablution fountain at the center of the courtyard, often fashioned from marble. Today most modern mosques have a more practical row of taps and drains alongside.
The mosque serves the community in many ways. Groups of children receive Quranic lessons or run freely across the carpet; people sit in quiet contemplation of carved wood panels, tiled walls and marbled pillars; others simply enjoy a peaceful nap in the cool.
The people of the Arabian Peninsula love sport, and some Gulf countries, especially Qatar, are trying to promote themselves as venues for international events. This is no new phenomenon. For centuries, Arab men have been getting together in flat patches of desert in barefoot running, ball games, wrestling and even rifle throwing.
Many traditional sports involve skill in handling animals with camel and horse racing topping the bill and falconry being the fabled sport of kings.
Bull butting. A curiosity of the east coast of Arabia (in the UAE and Oman) is– the pitching of one Brahman bull against another in a contest of strength. Much effort is taken to ensure the animals are not harmed but occasional injuries occur to ears or necks. Bull butting takes place in a dusty arena where the animals are nudged into a head-down position, and push and shove from one side of the arena to the other. The bulls are precious to their owners and much beloved so the minute the going gets tough, thankfully the tough get going. As such, it isn’t exactly the most spectacular sport to watch, though it always draws a huge crowd of locals. The best places to see bull butting are near Muscat in Oman and at Fujairah in the UAE.
Camel Racing. Camel racing is a grumbling affair of camels (who’d really rather not run) and owners (who make sure they do). The rider, traditionally, is almost immaterial. Racing usually involves a long, straight track (camels are not very good at cornering) with very wide turns. Camel fanciers race alongside in their 4WDs to give their favorite camel encouragement.
Betting is against Islamic principles, but at camel races, vast sums of money change hands in terms of prize money, sponsorship and ownership. A prize-racing camel can fetch over US$100,000. Camel racing can be seen throughout the region from October to May. Visitors can see races in Al-Shahaniya in Qatar and Al-Marmoum Camel Racecourse en route to Al-Ain from Dubai.
Horse Racing. The breeding of horses, shipped from ports like Sur in Oman, has been a source of income in Arabia for centuries. Now, partly thanks to the efforts of Lady Anne Blunt, a 19th-century British horse breeder, the fleet-footed, agile Arab horse is raced all over the world.
Horse racing is a major spectator event for Peninsula people and the event is at its most expensive and glamorous in the Dubai Cup. Heads of states, royalty, celebrities and top international jockeys gather for the occasion. Like Ascot in the UK it’s the place to be seen. The Meydan Racecourse in Dubai holds regular events.
Falconry. The ancient art of falconry is still practiced across the Peninsula. It dates back at least to the 7th century BC when tradition has it that a Persian ruler caught a falcon to learn from its speed, tactics and focus. Modern owners continue to admire their birds and lavish love and respect upon them. During the flying season, October to February, 10,000 birds are tended at Doha’s Falcon Hospital – a measure of how popular the sport remains. Top falcons can cost up to US$1 million.
Many raptors are bred for falconry on the Asir escarpment in Saudi but the easiest place to see a peregrine up close is in the Falcon Souq in Doha. The magical spectacle of birds being flown can be seen in Dubai and at most festivals, such as the Jenadriyah National Festival in Riyadh
Modern Sports. A range of modern sports are popular in the region, including rally-driving, quad-biking, volleyball and even ice-skating. At Ski Dubai, there are even five ski runs boasting snow.
You can’t possibly talk about sports in the area, however, and not mention football. At 4pm on a Friday, the men of just about every village in Arabia trickle onto the local waste-ground to play, all hopeful of joining international European clubs one day like some of their compatriots. Football is usually a shoeless business, on a desert pitch, played in wizza (cotton underskirt) and nylon strip but it is taken just as seriously as if it were played in a million-dollar stadium.
Breakfast. For most Arab people on the Peninsula, breakfast means eggs in some shape or form and locally produced salty white cheese with a glass of buttermilk or labneh (thin yoghurt) and tahini sweetened with date syrup. It might come with fuul madamas , a bean dish lubricated with olive oil, garnished on high days and holidays with pickles and eased along with olives. There may be lentils, heavily laced with garlic, to the chagrin of co-workers, and, of course, bread.
Known generically as khobz , bread (in up to 40 different varieties) is eaten in copious quantities with every meal. Most often it’s unleavened and comes in flat discs about the size of a dinner plate (not unlike an Indian chapatti). It’s traditionally torn into pieces, in lieu of knives and forks, and used to pinch up a morsel of meat, a scoop of dip and a nip of garnish.
Lunch. Lunch means one word only, and that is rice. Rice is often flavoured with a few whole cardamom pods and at feasts with saffron and sultanas. Buried in or sitting on top of the rice will be some kind of delicious spiced stew, with okra or grilled and seasoned chicken, lamb, goat or even camel – but of course never pork, which is haram (forbidden to Muslims but it’s sometimes available in Gulf supermarkets. Pork sections are easy to spot: customers slink out with sausages as if they’re top-shelf items).
Popular seasoning includes some or even all of the following: cardamom, coriander, cumin, cinnamon, nutmeg, chilli, ginger, pepper and the all-important, health-giving and almost flavourless turmeric. In Yemen no one can escape the bitter, livid green froth of fenugreek used to put a punch in a minimal broth or bean dish.
Not surprisingly for a Peninsula with such a rich coastline, fish (fresh or dried) is an equally important lunchtime staple. Hamour (a species of grouper), beya (mullet), kingfish, Sultan Ibrahim and tuna are grilled, fried or barbecued and served with rice and chopped raw cabbage with the essential half lime or lemon. Sardines, piles of which spangle the shore in season and are raked into malodorous heaps between houses, are seldom eaten: they’re usually dried for animal fodder.
Dinner. The evening meal is a ragged affair of competing interests – children clamouring for hot dogs or burgers, maids slipping them ‘keep-quiet food’, mothers going for a sandwich in Starbucks and grandmothers making sweetmeats and aubergine dips, nibbling on dates and trying to persuade fathers to enjoy the company of the family instead of going out for a kebab.
City people in the Peninsula enjoy going out and they are as likely to dine on Mongolian lamb chops, crab rangoon or spaghetti bolognaise as any other city dweller. More often than not, however, they’ll opt for Lebanese food with its copious selection of hot and cold appetizers known as mezze. The peeled carrots, buffed radishes, whole lettuces and bunches of peppery spinach leaves, provided complimentary, are a meal in themselves.
Locals invariably entertain guests at home and go out to eat something different. For travellers to the region, it can therefore be difficult finding indigenous food. Ask locally where to sample indigenous food and you may find you’re taken home for supper.
In Lebanese restaurants the number of mezze can run to 50 or more dishes and include delicacies like chopped liver, devilled kidney, sheep brain and other offal.
Western fast food has caught on among Peninsula people with the consumption of burger and fries verging on epidemic proportions. The concept has translated easily from traditional practices of visiting small eateries that sell kebabs, felafel and other types of sandwiches. Shwarma (meat sliced off a spit and stuffed in a pocket of pita-type bread with chopped tomatoes and garnish), usually served with some form of salad, is the snack of choice across the whole region. Outings to the coffeeshops that sell these traditional fast foods are more about sharing time with friends than eating and men in particular may spend all night on the same plastic chair, puffing on sheesha tobacco and sipping tea.
Snacks & Sweets. Peninsula people are not big on ‘puddings’, preferring fruits after (or often before) the meal, and thick fruit juices. On high days and holidays, however, baklava (made of filo and honey) or puddings – including mahallabiye (milk based) and umm ali (bread based) – might put in an appearance after lunch or supper. Every town has a baklava or pastry shop selling syrupy sweets made from pastry, nuts, honey and sometimes rose water. Sweets are ordered by a minimum weight of 250g.
Nonalcoholic Drinks. If you want to try camel’s milk without the stomach ache, you can often find it in supermarkets – next to the labneh , a refreshing drink of yoghurt, water, salt and sometimes crushed mint.
One of the best culinary experiences of travelling in the region is sampling the fresh fruit juices of pomegranate, hibiscus, avocado, sugar cane, mango, melon or carrot – or a combination of all sorts – served at juice stalls known as aseer. Mint and lemon or fresh lime is a refreshing alternative to soda.
Tea, known as shai or chi libton , could be tea min na’ana (with mint, especially in Saudi and Yemen), tea with condensed milk (in the Gulf) or black tea (in Oman), but whatever the flavor, it will contain enough sugar to make a dentist’s fortune. The teabag is left in the cup and water is poured from maximum height as proof of your host’s tea-making skills.
Coffee, known locally as qahwa, is consumed in copious quantities on the Peninsula and is usually strong. Arabia has a distinguished connection with coffee. Though no longer involved in the coffee trade, Al-Makha in Yemen gave its name to the blend of chocolate and coffee popularly known as ‘mocha’. The traditional Arabic or Bedouin coffee is heavily laced with cardamom and drunk in small cups. Turkish coffee, which floats on top of thick sediment, is popular in the Gulf region.
Nonalcoholic beer is widely available. Incidentally, travellers shouldn’t think that cans of fizzy drink will suffice for hydration in the desert: they often induce more thirst than they satisfy.
Coffeehouses & Coffeeshops. Across the Arabian Peninsula, there are bastions of old-world Arab hospitality that go by the name of ‘coffeehouses’. These relics of an era, when people had more time to sit and chat, are places of male camaraderie and tend often to be no more than a mere hole-in-the-wall, a bench up against a souq alleyway, or even a favourite perch under a tree. These coffeehouses dispense coffee from copper pots or chi libton (tea) in disposable paper cups while sheibas (old men) with beards dish out dates, advice and opinions in equal measure to anyone who’ll listen. For a male visitor, they offer a unique engagement with Arab society. Women are politely tolerated but it is more sensitive to leave the men to their bonding. ‘Coffeeshops’, on the other hand, welcome all-comers. These ubiquitous cafes, with their plastic chairs and compulsory string of fairy lights, are dotted across Arabia. They are usually run by expatriates from the subcontinent and they form the social hub of many small villages, selling kebabs, roasted chickens or omelettes rolled up in flat Arabic bread. Most are simple shopfronts with seating on the pavement but the more upmarket coffeeshops stretch to a plate and a napkin and are scented with the regional passion for sheesha (waterpipe).
Throughout the Peninsula there is an old and elaborate ritual surrounding the serving of coffee. In homes, offices and even at some hotels, you may well be offered a cup. To refuse is to reject an important gesture of welcome and hospitality, and you risk offending your host. ‘Arabic’ or ‘Bedouin’ coffee as it’s known, is usually poured from an ornate, long-spouted pot known as a dalla , into tiny cups without handles. You should accept the cup with your right hand. It’s considered polite to drink at least three cups (the third is traditionally considered to bestow a blessing). More may be impolite; the best advice is to follow your host’s lead. To show you’ve had sufficient, swivel the cup slightly between fingers and thumb.
Alcoholic Drinks. Despite its reputation as a ‘dry’ region, alcohol is available in all Peninsula countries, except Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and some of the Emirates (where both possession and consumption for locals and foreigners is strictly forbidden).
In the more liberal countries (such as Bahrain and Qatar and some parts of the UAE), bars, cocktail bars and even pubs can be found; in others (such as Yemen and Oman) usually only certain hotels (often mid- or upper range) are permitted to serve alcohol. Wine is served in most licensed restaurants in Bahrain, Oman, Qatar and the UAE.
Officially, no Peninsula country produces its own alcoholic drinks, though rumors abound where grapes and dates ferment. Where alcohol is available it’s imported from the West and the high prices are intended to keep consumption low – not very successfully. The legal age to be served alcohol is usually 18 years old. You can’t buy alcohol to take off the premises unless you are a resident and are eligible for a monthly quota.
Asian. All across Arabia large populations of expatriate peoples have brought their own cuisine to the Peninsula with the result that it dominates the menus of the region. For many Asian expats – often men on ‘bachelor’ contracts – breakfast, lunch and dinner consists of the same thing: rice and dhal, or rice and meat or vegetable curry, separated into three round metal lunchboxes, stacked one on top of the other, and including a bag of rolled up chapatti (Indian flat bread).
Providing a cheap and cheerful alternative to ‘the lunchbox’, and serving samosas, biryani or spicy mutton curry, a whole string of Indian and Pakistani restaurants have sprung up across the region, catering for hungry workers who would normally be looked after by wives and daughters. Those who do have their families with them enjoy as varied a cuisine as their nationality and local supermarket allow. British teachers eat roast beef for Friday lunch, Filipino nurses make chicken adobo, Sri Lankan maids try to win over their adoptive families to furious fish curries. In many of the big cities, the traveller can sample all these delights too, often in world-class restaurants.
Bedouin. Mostly, Bedouin food consists of whatever is available at a particular time, and hunger and thirst are far more attendant on a day’s travelling in the desert than sumptuous feasting. Camel’s milk and goat’s cheese are staple parts of the diet as are dried dates and, of course, water. Water takes on a particularly precious quality when it is rationed and the Bedouin are renowned for consuming very little, particularly during the day when only small sips are taken, mostly to rinse the mouth.
The legendary hospitality of the Bedu means that travellers in the Empty Quarter (in Saudi) or the Sharqiya Sands (Oman) who bump into a Bedouin camp are bound to be invited to share ‘bread and salt’. At the least this will involve Arabic coffee, camel’s milk and a thatch of dried meat, usually with a host of flies dancing in the bowl.
Habits & Customs. The main meal for most Peninsula people is usually a home-cooked family affair involving rice but there the similarities end. There is huge diversity in terms of the kinds of food prepared and the habits practiced across the region. Here are a few selected customs that may give insight into the important place that dining has within the Arab community as a whole.
Shopping. Catering for food is largely a man’s job and brothers are often dispatched to Thursday wholesale markets to find fresh produce. Giant shopping malls, like Carrefour, have met with instant success among city locals, perhaps because they resemble an air-conditioned version of the wholesale market. For many, however, buying meat from the livestock market is a matter of male pride and the animal will be taken home live ready for dispatch under specific Islamic guidelines.
Cooking. Dining is essentially a communal affair and it’s traditional at the weekends for many families who work in the city to travel long distances back to their villages to enjoy ‘mum’s cooking’. Women almost exclusively prepare food: grinding spices, peeling vegetables and plucking chickens is seen as an opportunity to chat with female relatives and catch up on the news. “Eating
In more traditional towns and villages, men and women will eat separately with the eldest son helping to serve the men first while the women await their turn in another room. It’s considered good manners for men to reserve the best parts of the meal for the women. Arab people assert that eating is enjoyed best, even by city dwellers with Western-style furniture, on the floor from shared dishes using bread and the right hand as utensils. This makes eating very easily transferable to an outdoor setting and indeed picnics are the number-one regional pastime.
Relaxing. A dish of rosewater, the petals harvested from Arabian mountains, marks the traditional end of a meal; diners rinse their hands in the scented water. Sleep is generally enjoyed by all after the midday meal.
In most Peninsula countries, mixed dining is common in more expensive or modern city restaurants. In smaller establishments, men eat on the ground floor, whilamadan. The holy month is a time of great conviviality and perhaps somewhat surprisingly, given that the month is about fasting and abstinence, many Arab people put on weight at this time. The reason for this is the long Ramadan nights which are generally marked by bonhomie and socialising and the sharing of seasonal delicacies and sweetmeats. The fast (between dawn and dusk) is broken each day with a communal breakfast comprising something light (like dates and laban – an unsweetened yoghurt drink) before prayers. Then comes iftar at which enough food is usually consumed to compensate for the previous hours of abstinence with socialising that continues well into the early hours. The venue for this communal meal is often the wali’s office (equivalent to a town hall) or a specially erected Ramadan tent. People then rise again before dawn to prepare a meal to support them throughout the day.
Where to Eat & Drink. One of the undoubted pleasures of the modern cities of the Peninsula is the variety and quality of the restaurants. In the Gulf in particular, there is world-class dining in magnificent surroundings. One way for a visitor to experience some of the best of these dining experiences is to skip breakfast on a Friday and visit the local five-star hotel for Friday brunch – a regional speciality much beloved by locals and expats alike. A spectacular array of local, Middle Eastern and international dishes will be on display, decorated with ice carvings and garnished extravagantly, for a relatively modest price. Similarly, many hotels arrange weekly seafood nights, often with belly dancing or local entertainment. Again, this is often a more economic way of sampling the region’s famous oysters, lobsters and prawns than reserving a table at an exclusive seafood restaurant.
Lebanese and Indian restaurants are the most prevalent throughout the region, followed by Chinese and Thai in the bigger towns. Food from all over the world is available in the Gulf cities. The hardest food to find in a restaurant is local, traditional fare but chains like Bin Ateeq in Muscat, and Souq Waqif in Doha, try to redress that imbalance.
On the whole, restaurants are open (mostly for expats) during lunch; they’re closed in the afternoon and open from about 6pm to the early hours of the morning to cater for the late-night eating habits of most people across the region. In Saudi Arabia restaurants must comply with certain strict regulations (regarding segregation of men and women and the observation of prayer hours, for example).
In very local restaurants, seating is sometimes on the floor on mats. Shoes should be left outside the perimeters of the mats. Food is served from a communal plate placed on a tray.
Traditional snacks (such as shwarma ) are quick, cheap and usually safe to eat, as the food is prepared and cooked in front of you.
There’s also a good range of well-stocked supermarkets (selling many international foods) in the large cities and, increasingly, food halls are found in the malls.
During Ramadan, most hotels set up elaborate buffets of Ramadan specialities which non-Muslims are free to join. Alcohol is not available in Ramadan except as room service at hotels.
Vegetarians & Vegans. While Arab people are traditionally thought of as full-blooded, red-meat eaters, the reality is that for many of modest income across the region meat is a treat for high days and holidays. This fact, coupled with the influence of southern Indian cuisine introduced by large expat communities of vegetarian Hindus, means that vegetable dishes appear more often than might be expected on a restaurant menu. Vegetarians beware! Some Peninsula chefs may regard vegetarianism as an incomprehensible Western indulgence or a kind of culinary apostasy. To avoid uncomfortable conversations about soup ingredients, stick to Indian restaurants.
Vegetarian staples include many bean and pulse dishes such as soup, fuul (fava bean paste) and dhal, or lentil stews. Chickpeas, either fried into felafel or ground into a paste with oil and garlic (hummus), are a common supplement. Aubergines and okra are used in many delicious stews, and salad vegetables are usually locally grown and organic.
Eating Etiquette. Sharing a meal with Arab friends is a great way of cementing a newly formed friendship. But Peninsula eating etiquette is refined and complex. Here are a few tips. Note that food is traditionally shared by all from the same serving dishes, spread on a cloth on the floor, without the use of cutlery.
Pre-Meal. If you’re eating in someone’s house, bring a small gift of flowers, chocolates or pastries, fruit or honey. Carry out your ablutions – it’s polite to be seen to wash your hands before a meal. Don’t sit with your legs stretched out – it’s considered rude during a meal.
During the Meal Use only your right hand for eating or accepting food; the left is reserved for ablutions. Don’t take the best part of the meal – such as the meat – until offered; it is usually saved until last. Mind your manners – your host will often lay the tastiest morsels in front of you; it’s polite to accept them. Don’t put food back on the plate: discard it in a napkin.
Post-Meal. It’s traditional to lavish food upon a guest; if you’re full, pat your stomach contentedly. Leave a little food on your plate: traditionally, a clean plate was thought to invite famine. Feel free to pick your teeth after a meal – it is quite acceptable and toothpicks are often provided. Stay for coffee – it’s polite to accept a cup of coffee after a meal and impolite to leave before it’s served. Know when to go – the chatting is usually done before the meal, so once the meal is over it’s time to leave – but don’t go before the chief guest.
For anyone who has travelled in Arabia, or had the privilege of being in the region after rains, it is immediately apparent that the Peninsula is far from a barren wasteland of undulating sands. On the contrary, the diverse desert landscapes support uniquely adapted plants and animals, particularly in the region’s wadis (valleys) and oases.
The Al-Hasa Oasis, near the town of Al-Hofuf in eastern Saudi Arabia, is the largest oasis in the world. Covering 2500 sq km, it’s home to over three million palm trees.
Geology. The Arabian Peninsula is a treasure trove for geologists. Though not particularly rich in minerals or gems (except the copper that is found in northern Oman), the Peninsula reveals the earth’s earliest history, supporting theories of plate tectonics and continental drift. Indeed, geologists believe that the Peninsula originally formed part of the larger landmass of Africa. A split in this continent created both Africa’s Great Rift Valley (which extends from Mozambique up through Djibouti, into western Yemen, Saudi Arabia and Jordan) and the Red Sea.
As Arabia slipped away from Africa, the Peninsula began to ‘tilt’, with the western side rising and the eastern edge dropping, a process that led to the formation of the Gulf.
Extensive flooding millions of years ago led to the remains of marine life being deposited in layers of sediment across the tilted landmass – as the rich fossil remains found across Arabia indicate. When sufficient dead organic matter is laid down and trapped under the surface where a lack of oxygen prevents it from decaying to water and carbon dioxide, the raw material of hydrocarbons is produced – the origin, in other words, of oil and gas. The conversion from dead organic matter to hydrocarbon is subject to many other conditions such as depth and temperature. Arabia’s geology is uniquely supportive of these conditions, and ‘nodding donkeys’ (drilling apparatus, capable of boring holes up to 5km deep) can be seen throughout the interior.
Governments across the region speculate endlessly on the quantity of reserves remaining. Given that the economies of all the Peninsula countries rely to a lesser or greater extent on oil and gas, this is one issue that can’t be left to insha’allah (God’s will). As such, Peninsula countries are busy diversifying their economic interests in case their reserves run out sooner rather than later.
Geography. Stand on top of Kuwait Towers and the eye roams unhindered along flat country. The low-lying coastal plains and salt flats stretch all along the limp waters of the northern Gulf until the Mussandam Peninsula brings the plain to an abrupt close. This is the environment of mudhoppers, wading birds and long stretches of dazzling-white sands.
Much of the interior is flat too but some major mountain ranges, like the Hajar Mountains of Oman and the Haraz Mountains of Yemen, bring an entirely different climate and way of life to the high ground.
There are no permanent river systems in the Peninsula. Water-laden clouds from the sea break across the mountains, causing rainfall to slide along wadis with dramatic speed. Smaller tributaries of water collect in the wadis from natural springs and create oases in the desert. In much of the Peninsula, the water table is close enough to the surface to hand-dig a well – a fact not wasted on the Bedu who survive on a system of wells and springs discovered or made by their ancestors. Irrigation, in the form of elaborate ducts and pipes (called aflaj in Oman), helps channel water through plantations, allowing more extensive farming in the region than might be supposed.
Desert. The harsh lands of Arabia have for centuries attracted travellers from the Western world. According to Richard Burton, they were curious to see ‘a haggard land infested with wild beasts, and wilder men…What could be more exciting? What more sublime?’ Indeed, there is such awe in the words ‘Arabian desert’, it has been described by so many famous writers and travellers, and it is bound up so inseparably in Western fantasies of escape that it is hard to begin a description of it. The very words ‘Empty Quarter’ (a sea of dunes that lies at the heart of the Peninsula, straddling Saudi, Yemen, Oman and UAE) invite imaginative speculation, exploration and discovery.
To this day, people come to the desert expecting ‘sand, sand, sand, still sand, and only sand and sand again’. In fact, the sand dunes of the Empty Quarter, or Rub al-Khali as it is known locally, may be the most famous geographical feature but they are not the only desert of interest. Much of the Peninsula is made up of flat, gravel plains dotted with outcrops of weather-eroded sandstone in the shape of pillars, mushrooms and ledges. Fine examples of these desert forms can be seen in Saudi Arabia, near Al-Ula, Bir Zekreet in Qatar and Duqm and the Huqf Escarpment in Oman.
There are many other kinds of desert too, including flat coastal plains and the infamous volcanic black Harra of northern Arabia.
Nowadays, camels (few of which are wild) and feral donkeys dominate the landscape of thorny acacia (low, funnel-shaped bushes) and life-supporting ghaf trees. Sheltering under these trees, sustained by the dew from the leaflets in the morning, are gazelle, protected colonies of oryx, and a host of smaller mammals – hares, foxes and hedgehogs – that provide a food source for the land’s many raptors. Easier to spot are lizards, snakes and insects that provide the building blocks of the desert ecosystem.
Mountains. They may not be the mightiest mountains in the world but the ranges of the Peninsula are nonetheless spectacular. This is partly because they rise without preamble from flat coastal plains.
The Peninsula has two main mountain ranges. The Hejaz range runs the length of Saudi Arabia’s west coast, generally increasing in height as it tends southwards. The term ‘mountain’ may seem a misnomer for much of the range. Saudi’s landmass looks like a series of half-toppled books, with flat plains ending in dramatic escarpments that give way to the next plain. The last escarpment drops spectacularly to the sea. If you follow the baboons over the escarpment rim, from the cool, misty, green reaches of Abha to Jizan on the humid, baking plains of the Tihama, the effect of this range is immediately felt. The settlers of the fertile mountains in their stone dwellings live such a different life to the goat herders in their mud houses on the plains, they may as well belong to different countries – and indeed the Tihama shares much in common with Eritrea and Ethiopia’s Tigré region on the opposite side of the Red Sea.
The Haraz Mountains of Yemen give rise to Jabal an-Nabi Shu’ayb (3660m), the highest peak on the Peninsula. Forming part of the Great Rift Valley, the landmass of Yemen is predominantly mountainous, commonly rising 2000m or more and making farming a challenge. To compensate, Yemeni farmers cut elaborate terraces up the hillside to keep soil from washing away. These are shored up by stones and the maintenance of the terrace walls is a concern now that younger generations head to town in in search of easier work than farming.
Arabia’s other principal mountain range is found in the east of the Peninsula. Here, Oman’s Hajar Mountains protect the communities around the Gulf of Oman from the encroachment of deserts from the interior. Terracing similar to that of Yemen can be seen on Jebel Akhdar and on pocket-handkerchief scraps of land in the Mussandam. The southern mountains of Oman, in the hills of Dhofar, catch the edge of the monsoon from India bringing light rains that cause the arid hills to burst into life during the summer when most of the rest of the Peninsula is desiccated by the heat.
The hills of southern Arabia are home to the elusive leopard, one of Arabia’s most magnificent animals. It is the largest but not the only predatory mammal of the Peninsula: caracals, wolves, striped hyenas and sand cats are all resident (though in small and diminishing numbers) in the mountains and wadis of Oman in particular, where they prey on snakes and the plentiful rodents.
The mountains are the best (though far from the only) place to see wildflowers. After rains they bloom in olives, lavenders and many plants with medicinal properties flourish.
Seas. The Peninsula is bordered by three distinct seas, each of which has its own character.
The Red Sea, with its world-renowned underwater landscape and great diversity of tropical fish, is mostly calm, and its shores flat and sandy. Grouper, wrasse, parrotfish and snapper inhabit the colorful gardens of coral, sea cucumbers and sponge, while shark and barracuda swim beyond the shallows, only venturing into the reefs to feed or breed.
The Arabian Sea, home to dolphins and whales and five species of turtle, many of which nest along the eastern Arabian shore, has a split personality. Calm for much of the year, it becomes violently rough in the khareef (summer monsoon), casting up shells on some of the most magnificent, pristine, uninterrupted beaches in the world. Rimmed by cliffs for much of its length, this sea is punctuated with fishing villages that continue a way of life little changed in centuries, supported by seas rich in sardine and tuna.
The Gulf has a completely different character to the other two seas. Flat, calm, so smooth that at times it looks solid like a piece of shiny coal, it tends to be shallow for up to a kilometre from the shore. With lagoons edged with valuable mangroves, this is an important habitat for birds. It is also conducive to human development: much of the rim of the Gulf has been paved over or ‘reclaimed’ for the improbable new cities at its edge.
National Parks & Protected Areas. The idea of setting aside areas for wildlife runs contrary to the nature of traditional life on the Peninsula which was, and to some extent still is, all about maintaining a balance with nature, rather than walling it off. The Bedu flew their hunting falcons only between certain times of the year and moved their camels on to allow pasture to regrow. Fishermen selected only what they wanted from a seasonal catch, and threw the rest back. Goat and sheep herders of the mountains moved up and down the hillside at certain times of the year to allow for regrowth. Farmers let lands lie fallow so as not to exhaust the soil.
Modern practices, including settlement of nomadic tribes, sport hunting, trawler fishing and the use of pesticides in modern farming, have had such an impact on the natural environment over the past 50 years, however, that all governments in the region have recognized the need actively to protect the fragile ecosystems of their countries. This has resulted in the creation of protected areas (10% of the regional landmass) but, with tourism on the increase, there is a strong incentive to do more.
Most countries have established conservation schemes, with the UAE leading the way. Five per cent of the Emirate of Dubai is a protected area, thanks to the example set by the late Sheikh Zayed, posthumously named ‘Champion of the Earth’ by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) in 2005. Sir Bani Yas Island has an important and growing collection of Arabian wildlife and Al Ain Zoo has been transformed into a sustainable wildlife centre. Arabia’s Asir National Park is the largest on the Peninsula, comprising 450,000 hectares of Red Sea coast, escarpment and desert. In addition, Saudi authorities have designated 13 wildlife reserves (which amount to over 500,000 hectares) as part of a plan for more than 100 protected areas. Socotra in Yemen is a Unesco biosphere reserve and there are plans to designate the forests around Hawf and the Bura’a Forest in the Tihama into national parks. The Hawar Islands, home to epic colonies of cormorants and other migrant birds, are protected by the Bahrain government.
Although it has no national parks as such, Oman has an enviable record with regard to protection of the environment – a subject in which the sultan has a passionate interest. His efforts have repeatedly been acknowledged by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. Sanctuaries for oryx, the internationally important turtle nesting grounds of Ras al-Jinz, tahr (a mountain-dwelling, goat-like mammal) and leopard sanctuaries provide protection for these endangered species.
Water. The major concern for all Peninsula countries, particularly those of the Gulf, is water – or rather the lack of it. Sustained periods of drought and increased water consumption over the past decade have led to a depleted water table. Saudi Arabia will run out of groundwater long before it runs out of oil.
Bahrain’s freshwater underground springs have already dried up, leaving the country reliant on expensive desalinated water. Yemen’s groundwater levels have in recent years dropped dramatically, due to the use of pumps for irrigation. Higher demand for residential use is another factor forcing countries to rethink ways of managing water. Modernization of irrigation systems appears to be the way forward although public awareness has a role to play too. At present, it would be unthinkable to impose a hose-pipe ban (such as that which marks most summers in rainy Britain) on municipal and private gardens as flowering borders are considered the ultimate symbol of a modern, civilized lifestyle.
That said, mostly gone are the days when you could cross parts of Saudi and see great green circular fields dotted across the desert. There was much to regret in the attempt to make the desert bloom: while Saudi became an exporter of grain, it used up precious mineral deposits and lowered the water table, and to no great useful purpose – the country can easily afford to import grain at the moment; there may be times to come when it cannot, and many experts are of the opinion it’s better to retain precious resources for an emergency.
In a region where oil is the major industry, there is always a concern about spillage and leakage, and the illegal dumping of oil from offshore tankers is a constant irritation to the countries of the Gulf. The oil spillage, following the deliberate release of oil by the Iraqis during the Gulf War, resulted in an environmental catastrophe which, though not quite as bad as initially predict “ed, caused significant damage that is still being addressed today.
The oil industry isn’t the only sector responsible for environmental degradation. As one of the Peninsula’s fastest-growing industries, tourism is becoming a major environmental issue – as seen at the turtle beaches of Ras al-Jinz, where many tourists show a dismal lack of respect for both the turtles and their environment. The irresponsible use of 4WD vehicles in ‘dune bashing’ is another lamentable problem.
By far the biggest concern created by larger numbers of visitors to the desert is the discarding of rubbish: indeed, for several decades the Arabian Peninsula has been afflicted by the scourge of plastic bags and tin cans. These are unceremoniously dumped out of car windows or discarded at picnic sites and can be seen drifting across the desert, tangled in trees or floating in the sea. Expatriates and many Peninsula Arabs don’t feel it is their responsibility to ‘bag it and bin it’ – that would be stealing the job, so the argument goes, of the road cleaner. You can see these individuals on a scooter or even walking in the middle of summer with a dust pan and brush and a black bin liner, 100km from the nearest village. The idea that Arabs have inherited the throwaway culture from the Bedu and can’t distinguish between organic and non-biodegradable is often cited but lacks credibility. The Bedu know very well that an orange peel, let alone a Coke can, does not decompose in a hurry in the dry heat of the Peninsula.
The sand cat, sand fox and desert hare have large ears, giving a large surface area from which to release heat, and tufts of hair on their paws that enable them to walk on blistering desert floors.
The Arab response to litter, like the Arab response to conservation in general, probably has more to do with a lack of interest in the great outdoors for its own sake. But times are changing, and school trips to wild places may just be the answer. In UAE, recycling was made mandatory in 2010 and Masdar City in Abu Dhabi is taking the lead on carbon-neutral living.”
There are over 600 species of date. The best come from Al-Hasa in Saudi Arabia where a variety called khlas is presold to regular customers before it’s even harvested. A single date palm produces 270kg of fruit per year. 60% of dates is sugar and 2% protein and mineral.
Sheesha. In any city across the Peninsula, two sensations mark the hot and humid air of an Arabian summer’s evening: the wreaths of scented peach-flavoured smoke that spiral above the corner coffeeshop and the low gurgle of water, like a grumbling camel, in the base of the water pipe. Periodically banned by governments concerned for public morality (the pipes are not narcotic – only time-wasting), and inevitably returned to the street corners by the will of the people, these sheesha establishments are an indispensable part of Arabian social life.
In the traditional coffeehouses of the region, sheesha is an entirely male affair: men sprawl on cushions in Yemen, or lounge on benches in the souqs of Doha; they indolently watch the football on TV, occasionally breaking off from the sucking and puffing to pass a word of lazy complaint to their neighbor, snack on pieces of kebab, or hail the waiter for hot coals to awaken the drowsy embers of the sheesha bottle.
In Dubai, Manama and Muscat, however, sheesha has long since spread to the more family-oriented coffeeshop. It has even become a fashionable occupation in Western style cafes. Here, women in black abeyyas (full-length black robes) and sparkling diamante cuffs drag demurely on velvet-clad mouthpieces, their smoking punctuating a far more animated dialogue as they actively define the new shape of society.
One Thousand Roads to Mecca: Ten Centuries of Travelers Writing About the Muslim Pilgrimage, Michael Wolfe, 1999
The Hajj, FE Peters, 1995
In the Beginning
Unlike most travellers’ ta”
Richard Burton’s Personal Narrative of a Pilgrimage to Al-Madinah and Meccah (1874) offers a rare Western insight into the holy cities which he entered as an imposter under disguise.
Travel of Ibn Jubayr, Ibn Jubayr. This 12th-century hajji from Arab Spain stayed in Mecca for eight months and recounts that experience and is considered the first traveller’s diary in Arabic.
Hajj: Reflection on Its Rituals, Ali Shariati, 2005
Hajj: Journey to the Heart of Islam, Venetia Porter, 2012
The Arab Table: Recipes & Culinary Traditions (May Bsisu)
Medieval Arab Cookery (Maxime Rodinson)
UNESCO WORLD HERITAGE SITES
Qala’at al-Bahrain (Bahrain) Dilmun heritage and coastal fort.
Bahla Fort (Oman) Newly completed restoration project ongoing for two decades.
Land of Frankincense (Oman) Dhofar’s ancient trading ports and caravan routes connected with the precious sap.
Bat and Al-Ayn (Oman) Pre-Islamic burial sites.
Aflaj (Oman) Ancient irrigation system.
Madain Saleh (Saudi Arabia) Nabataean outpost in the middle of a sandstone desert.
Dir’aiyah (Saudi Arabia) Ancient ruins on the outskirts of Riyadh.
Al-Ain (UAE) Cultural sites associated with the famous oasis.
Shibam (Yemen) Old walled city.
Zabid (Yemen) Ancient walled city.
Socotra (Yemen) Home to endemic species.”
BEST ON FILM
Lawrence of Arabia (1962) David Lean’s classic desert epic.
A Dangerous Man: Lawrence after Arabia (1991) Starring Ralph Fiennes in an unofficial sequel to Lawrence of Arabia .
Lessons of Darkness (1992) Herzog’s exploration of apocalypse in Kuwait’s oil fields after the Gulf War.
The Kingdom (2007) Action film examining Saudi Arabia’s relationship with the USA.