Five Myths about the Middle East

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Today an excerpt from Made With appeared in the Guardian about “How the Middle East is setting standards in sustainability.”

It’s an example of a popular myth about the Arab world (that they are oil pumping, gas guzzling and decades behind on sustainability) being busted by the current realities which are far more progressive and interesting. I thought it would be interesting to compile a list of such misperceptions that were questioned by my own research and contacts. Please do add suggestions for further myths to bust in the comments :J

Myth 1. It’s the least sustainable place on earth

Actually no, Abu Dhabi, Qatar, and even Saudi are heavily invested in sustainability. The article talks about the revolution in building standards. Masdar is pioneering new energy technologies and research. Saudi has announced investments in solar on a scale which rivals the total world capacity to date. Also the figures which proclaim “the highest footprint in the world” are counting the oil industry which is our footprint more than theirs?

Myth 2. It’s a cultural desert

Beirut and Istanbul which feature heavily in Made with are well known world class creative cities with top world award winning film makers, designers, artists, novelists, fashionistas… Not to mention the depth of heritage in artisanal crafts. And the revival of historical techniques – for instance the exquisite gem work in Ottoman Jewellery. What’s less well known is for instance the Saudi fine art scene is achieving global recognition – eg http://edgeofarabia.com

Myth 3. Women have no voice

The position of women in Middle East societies has been used by Western colonial commentators since Victorian times to evidence the ‘backwardness’ of societies like Egypt – a discourse that is brilliantly revisited by Leila Ahmed’s book “A Quiet Revolution”. As Ahmed points out at the time of those original criticisms European women had no vote and few freedoms either. The position of women in the Middle East is a complex and changing subject, but from women in the Saudi parliament, Saudi women driver protestors on Facebook, the generation of women in powerful business and political positions in Iran (after the Iran Iraq war depleted the male population), the growth of specialists private banking for the growing numbers of hugely wealthy divorced and widowed women, the women who fought alongside the men in the overthrow of Mubarak in Egypt, the trend to female targeted content in the Arab web, the amazing female artists, activists and entrepreneurs that I found through my interviews and research… it is not as simple as to say women have no voice.

Myth 4. The Arab Web is Simply Cloning the West

This was a point of view that was argued over on Techcrunch last year. Some claimed that all Arab web start ups are simply clones of Western sites in another language. The first point to make is that internet innovation largely consists of creating better versions of existing applications – Friendster, MySpace, Facebook… Second is that the web is now a global community of innovators and many web stars I met from Beirut, Amman, Istanbul and so on had worked in the West, or been educated at MIT, Stanford and so on. A senior manager from eBay starting the leading Turkish ecommerce site (Markafoni), then rolling it out to markets from poland to Australia is hardly a plagiarist. As a founder of SEEQNCE (an internet accelerator in Beirut) says they would be crazy not to learn from 15 years of web learning and development. But they are not that far behind in and areas like mobile payments, possibly ahead.

Myth 5. They want to be like us.

Yes the Middle East has been saturated by Western brands – from KFC to Paris Hilton (whose store in the mall at Mecca caused some social media controversy). In the wealthier societies of the world you do find a lot of imported goods of course. But you wouldn’t deduce that Mercedes drivers across the world all want to be German? That influx of Western brands and the apparently secular pro democracy protests off Arab Spring using Facebook and twitter to boot led the Western media to suggest that what Arab youth aspire to is Western values and lifestyles. When you get closer to the realities a more complex picture emerges. 93% of local youth in one survey (by TRUVIEW) said their religion was very important to them – far from a secular generation then? Another survey (by Burson Marstellar) found that the country Arab youth most aspired to emulate was the United Arab Emirates (not the USA – and actually not a democracy) especially in Arab Spring countries like Egypt and Tunisia.

What most people I interviewed said that they may want modernism in various aspects, but they wanted to be themselves.And many also pointed to a growing appreciation in the region of entrepreneurship (rather than a safe job working for the government) as a means to further your own life and that of your society.

The danger of this kind of list is that in busting one myth, you create or perpetuate another. Many of the people I met were complex, richly interesting, diverse and striving… people living life to its fullest, and far from embodying stereotyped simplifications. And perhaps the most interesting finding from the point of view of ongoing Western condescension was their confidence – buoyed up by decades of economic growth and growing global recognition for their work – a sense that it is now “our turn”.

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