Geopolitical Gatsbys

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Originally published in The Financial Times

The Johnny-come-latelies of geopolitics

Review by Tanjil Rashid

Miriam Cooke’s ‘Tribal Modern’ argues that Gulf states have forged a new strand of modernity

Tribal Modern: Branding New Nations in the Arab Gulf
By Miriam Cooke (University of California Press, £19.95, $29.95)

In Dave Eggers’s novel, A Hologram for the King, an American IT consultant is dispatched to Saudi Arabia. Every day he is driven to a large white tent in the desert to test a holographic tele­conferencing system; it is his job to flog this to King Abdullah, custodian of the holy mosques. Imagine the possibilities – the king could be in Mayfair and Mecca at the same time!

The Arabian Desert has been fertile in inspiring fictional tales of the bizarre encounter between high-technology capitalism and the ancient tribes of the Gulf, from oil economist Abdulrahman Munif’s classic 1984 novel, Cities of Salt, to Black Gold, a 2011 film funded by Qatar and starring Antonio Banderas.

These works express a narrative of a once-wholesome tribal culture mugged by modernity. There is a similar dichotomy at work in Middle East policy circles: to be modern, the Gulf nations must bury their tribal roots under the steel foundations of buildings such as Dubai’s Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest.

But in Tribal Modern, Miriam Cooke takes issue with this view. She believes the nations of the Gulf are forging an entirely new modernity, a “national brand that combines the spectacle of tribal and modern cultures and identities”.

“We must see,” she writes, “how the tribal and the modern, the high-rises and the tribal regalia converge.” Why must we see? In Cooke’s view, policy makers and business people cannot afford not to care about the tribal-modern brand – valued at more than $1.6tn, judging by the gross domestic product of the Gulf Co-operation Council countries.

Topically, Cooke, Duke University’s chair of Arab studies, also alerts us to the similar “resilience of tribal structures and affiliations in Libya” – as its nation-builders are discovering. (Libya’s revolution was, as it happens, partly bankrolled by Qatar.)

The Gulf nations betray a genius for tribal-modern convergence. In one of many astute visual anecdotes, Cooke describes a procession in Doha celebrating Qatar’s successful 2022 football World Cup bid: sport utility vehicles and Lamborghinis alongside dromedaries. Indeed, camel racing perfectly illustrates her case. A local festive custom has evolved into a rationalised industry involving tens of thousands of Somali and Pakistani workers, and even robot jockeys.

Cooke is at her best scrutinising how the Gulf projects this tribal modern brand in its heritage industry, noting how the buildings that house “national museums publicise country brands”. Abu Dhabi’s soars like an Emirati falcon, while Qatar’s unfolds like a desert rose, “a modern caravanserai that morphs modernity at the intersection of desert and sea”.

However, as Cooke notes, they were designed, respectively, by the UK’s Lord Foster and France’s Jean Nouvel. The Museum of Islamic Art in Doha was designed by the Chinese-American architect IM Pei and contains not a single object made in the emirate. The Islamic art market on which the Gulf feasts is largely London-based and almost completely defined by western orientalist scholarship. Even Black Gold, which projected Qatar’s tribal pedigree to global cinema audiences, was in the mould of 1950s Hollywood super-productions, “the copy of the copy without an original”.

The tribal-modern brand’s ironic relationship with historical truth is not lost on Cooke, but its real significance might be. Do the Gulf nations really incarnate a new tribal-modern future? Cooke’s vision is analogous to similar anxieties over the future shape of capitalism in the emerging nations of Asia, where western-style prosperity also rubs shoulders with customs strange to westerners.

In truth, what is most telling about the Gulf is not the region’s “affirmation of tribal identity”, which in Cooke’s account appears at times to be limited to neo-Bedouin poetry contests and other leisure activities.

Rather, it is the fact that, in building their brands, the Gulf nations have sought mainly to buy into the west’s own most prized brands, from the $140m Louvre Abu Dhabi to Doha’s Damien Hirst exhibition; from Ivy League colleges setting up shop on artificial island campuses to the World Cup. Even attempts at forging a nativist, tribal identity are, in their choice of “starchitect” or exhibition collection, mediated by western cultural institutions, and deliberately calculated to garner their acclaim.

Tribal Modern attributes to the Gulf a modernity it has invented. In fact, it has largely aped it. The region is behaving as new money always has: trying to impress old money by building lavish libraries and collecting art, all in the vain hope that these will mask their Gatsby-like insecurities of being upstarts, late to the geopolitical party.

The writer is a freelance journalist

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Financial astrologers gaze at stock markets in the stars

This article was originally published in The Financial Times

In a darkened room under a domed ceiling, glimmers an animated starscape that is also a live representation of global stock markets. Shares float through the night sky according to the market’s currents. Conglomerates form constellations, industries are galaxies – and Lehman Brothers is a black hole.

The Black Shoals Stock Market Planetarium is an art installation devised by Lise Autogena and Joshua Portway that has toured galleries in recent years.

Their inspiration was “the hidden world of financial astrology,” says Ms Autogena, referring to the practice of divining market events by studying the movements of the stars.

Despite the air of pseudoscience, financial astrology has been growing in popularity and complexity. Once limited to the almanack and the horoscopic basics of looking at a company’s date of birth and then examining starcharts, the discipline now apes the mathematical methods of rival financial theories.

Market Analyst, a financial software product, has an inbuilt astro-finance modelling tool. It charts celestial movements through the ages and correlates them with economic data – light years away from the ancient stargazers who advised farmers on crop yields.

“It’s all about number crunching,” explains Christeen Skinner, a financial astrologer in the UK.

The Black Shoals Planetarium is a wry nod to the Black-Scholes formula, one of many mathematical models that reinforce the perception of the market as supremely rational.

Yet the rather less rational realm of financial astrology remains compelling for some investors.

Currency speculators have been consulting astrologers en masse about India’s rupee avalanche, which GaneshaSpeaks.com, India’s leading astro-finance consultancy, says it foretold.

“The launch date of the new Rupee symbol was not a favourable one,” says Dharmesh Joshi on the organisation’s website, which operates a 24-hour helpline. Economists are more inclined to pin the fall on uncertainty over whether the US will taper its asset purchases.

However, a receptiveness to financial astrology is not limited to countries rich in superstition such as India. The discipline also has a following in Britain and the US.

Ray Merriman, for example, says he has 7,000 subscribers to his MMA Cycles astro-finance consultancy in Michigan.

The New York Astrology Center run by Henry Weingarten, a commodity trader, sometimes charges $1,000 per consultation, owing to a reputation for successfully predicting stock market plunges, such as Tokyo’s in 1990.

Grace Morris, another well-known US astrologer, has featured in Forbes magazinefor her record of consistently outperforming the market.

However, Ms Skinner rejects the idea that her discipline can alchemically turn out riches. She insists instead that her methods should be employed only to complement other tools. “You would be a fool to rely solely on financial astrology,” she says.

The mathematisation of financial astrology may have helped improve its credibility in the minds of some investors just as conventional techniques bear the taint of the global financial crisis.

For example, in his book The Black Swan, Nassim Nicholas Taleb attributes to conventional techniques “no better predictive value for assessing the total risks than astrology”.

This would not have surprised the economist John Kenneth Galbraith, of course, who once joked that “the only function of economic forecasting was to make astrology look respectable”.

That is one economist’s forecast which turned out to be correct.