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

‘The Muslims are Coming!’, by Arun Kundnani

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This article was published in The Financial Times

Review by Tanjil Rashid

A critique of the west’s counterterrorism policies overlooks the roots of homegrown radicalism

The Muslims are Coming!: Islamophobia, Extremism, and the Domestic War on Terror by Arun Kundnani, Verso RRP£14.99 / $26.95

In Our Man in Havana, Graham Greene tells the story of a vacuum cleaner salesman turned British secret agent. His incompetence results in the absurdity of diagrams for cleaner parts being mistaken on high as a blueprint for a Soviet plot, while official money is ploughed into inventing threats to the UK’s own interests.

In The Muslims are Coming!, a critique of counterterrorism policy by Arun Kundnani, the west’s “domestic war on terror” at times resembles a Greene novel populated by a cast of counterterrorism warriors even unlikelier than a hawker of Hoovers in Havana.
Take, for example, Shahed Hussain, an American petrol pump attendant with a trade in fake drivers’ licences, whom the Federal Bureau of Investigation roped into ensnaring Muslims into terror plots against US targets – planned and financed by the US government itself.

As Judge Colleen McMahon stated in 2011 when sentencing one of Mr Hussain’s catches: “Only the government could have made a terrorist out of [James] Cromitie, a man whose buffoonery is positively Shakespearean in scope.” It is a pity the judgment is not quoted in full, for it succinctly exemplifies Kundnani’s argument. “[The government] created acts of terrorism out of his fantasies of bravado and bigotry,” she said, “and then made those fantasies come true.”

Kundnani, a fellow of the Soros Foundation, believes the wider war on terror at home to be founded on a fantasy. The west, he says, “is dedicating tens of billions of dollars a year to fighting a domestic threat of terror violence that is largely imagined”.

Based on years of research from Dallas to Dewsbury, West Yorkshire, this book is the most rigorous account yet of this familiar argument, which British film-maker Adam Curtis called the “power of nightmares”. Kundnani shares Curtis’s view, too, that Muslims have replaced communists as the “phantasm” of policy makers and conspiracy theorists, “a conceptual scaffolding inherited from the cold war”. But to imply vast chunks of government policy are built on fables itself rings of conspiracy theory.

In truth, counterterrorism policies targeting Muslims are a legitimate response to homegrown extremism, from the murder of Fusilier Lee Rigby to the 366 (by one count) British citizens waging jihad in Syria. Furthermore, the victims of the 2005 London bombings bear witness to the reality of radicalism bred at home.

At best, Kundnani’s argument is compelling in its dissection of governments’ disproportional responses. He estimates the FBI has one counter­terrorism agent per 94 Muslims in the US, which approaches a Stasi-esque ratio of spies to citizens. He shows that authorities keep drawing spurious lists of suspected radicals; one in the UK included almost 300 children under 15.

A commonplace at the core of Kundnani’s critique is that radicalism is mainly the byproduct of western foreign policy. “Religion had nothing to do with this,” according to Kundnani, citing a conspirator in the London bombings. This view is undermined by the existence of two generations of British Muslims predating the war on terror – men who fought in Afghanistan in the 1980s and in Bosnia in the 1990s. The diminution of religion’s role in stoking radicalism is as inaccurate as UK Labour politicians’ denial that wars in Iraq and Afghanistan acted even as recruiting sergeants.

Kundnani scrutinises responses to terrorism better than outlining its causes. He probes the mutations of liberalism in the face of Islam, resulting in “war on terror liberals” for whom liberalism “became an ideology of total war”, from the UK Labour party’s interventionist foreign policy to Martin Amis’s innumerate paranoia about Muslim birth rates.

Liberals hold up the Enlightenment, conservatives “campaign to defend Judeo-Christian identity” – both banners explicitly excluding Muslims; both groups inclined, Kundnani writes, to see “terrorists motivated by fanaticism inherent to Islam”.

History offers correctives to these narratives, demonstrating varieties of Islam being as rooted in rationalism as the Enlightenment; the Enlightenment being as tied to terror as Islam (the word “terrorism” itself was first used during The Terror of the Enlightenment-inspired French revolution). The Muslims are Coming! lacks optimism but there is every reason to believe “Muslim” might one day be suffixed to “Judeo-Christian” when de­scribing the west’s culture and values.

Note how one prominent French intellectual writes about Europe’s growing population of a certain religious minority: “All of them are born with raging fanaticism in their hearts.” The author of these unenlightened remarks? Voltaire. His subject? The Jews.

The writer is a freelance journalist

Sharon White is first woman named Treasury permanent secretary

This article was originally published in The Financial Times

Sharon White has become the first woman – and the first black person – to be appointed as a permanent secretary at the Treasury, in a sign of the changing face of Whitehall’s most powerful department.

Ms White becomes second permanent secretary with responsibility for managing Britain’s public finances, including overseeing a fiscal squeeze expected to last until 2020.

She worked at the Treasury in the early 1990s – former Conservative chancellor Ken Clarke was said to be a big fan – and has also worked across Whitehall. In 2011, she led the review of the Treasury’s management response to the financial crisis. Before becoming a civil servant, she worked for a church in a deprived area of Birmingham.

Ms White’s ascendancy reflects a change in the make-up of the Treasury, which a decade ago had a staff that was more than 75 per cent male only. Today 43 per cent of employees are women.

Dame Anne Mueller was a Treasury permanent secretary in the 1980s, but she secured her job as part of a general Whitehall upheaval. Treasury officials say she was not “appointed” to the post.

As Ms White remarked in an interview with The Guardian last year, the Treasury has been seen by many on the outside as having “quite a macho culture” and that economics, as a discipline, was still male dominated.

But her appointment also throws up an intriguing dynamic in the White household; while she oversees Britain’s public finances, Robert Chote, her husband, runs the independent Office for Budget Responsibility.

The Treasury said Ms White was “overwhelmingly the best candidate for the job” and that, while she would come into contact with the OBR, she was not the lead official dealing with the budgetary watchdog.

Ms White works under Sir Nick Macpherson, permanent secretary, and alongside John Kingman, a second permanent secretary.

Tom Scholar, the incumbent, moves to Downing Street as David Cameron’s foreign policy adviser.