Geopolitical Gatsbys


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