Between Tradition and Modernity: The Fascinating Persian Gulf States
The world is filled with fascinating places that can give a traveler or an expat the experience of a lifetime. A recent article from Travel+Leisure listed out the best places to travel in 2017. It is not surprising that many of the places were in Europe considering the dearth of sites that each of those countries has, but I was also pleased to see a large variety of locations outside of Europe, such as Uruguay, Morocco, and India among many others. The selection for that list was a truly international one. I have been to a decent number of those places, but there are also many places on that list I have not been to yet, and I certainly plan to. As I read the article, I was reminded of the many times where I've gone to countries not really expecting much, and they have turned into quite memorable trips.
This is very much dependent on where you live, but when most people are trying to decide where to go for vacation, it is quite likely that the Gulf countries of Oman, United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain, and Kuwait which are located on the coast of the Persian Gulf don't really come up in the decision-making process. This can be for a variety of reasons ranging from simple geography (it is time consuming and expensive to fly from the US to any of those Gulf states) to the relative lack of exposure they get from the media and tourist companies since they are mainly oil-producing countries, and, with the exception of the United Arab Emirates, do not have much of an international tourist industry. However, during my time as an expat living in the Middle East, out of the seven Arab States of the Persian, I have had the opportunity to visit all of those Gulf States except Saudi Arabia (I maintain the hope that I will be able to visit one day).
In my personal opinion, I initially was not sure whether I would enjoy these places since I didn't really know much about them, and everything I had heard about them from people who had visited or lived there was usually lukewarm at best and at the worst, I was told not to waste my time. However, I actually really enjoyed visiting the Gulf States. They were very much a mix of tradition and religion with cosmopolitanism mixed in with a clear and rather blatant sense and display of wealth that was manifested by a rampant consumerism. It's relatively uncommon to find countries like this in other parts of the world. Despite the small size of 60% of the Arab Gulf States, they are certainly worth visiting.
Of all the Gulf States, I found Oman to be the one of the most beautifully scenic and picturesque countries that I have visited in the Middle East (Jebel Akhdar is mentioned in Travel+Leisure). The capitol of Muscat is surrounded by mountains that reminded me of a movie set where the desert and mountains could pass for an extraterrestrial land. What I particularly liked about Oman was the fact that the old part of Muscat still maintained a tradition of the white buildings, and this gave a sense of exoticism to the place since almost all local Omanis wore the white dishdasha and the distinctive Omani cap known as a "kuma."
While Oman seemed to be the most traditional, the other smaller Gulf States of Bahrain, Kuwait, United Arab Emirates, and Qatar are fascinating in their own right. All three of them originally started as rather poor fishing societies, but with the discovery of oil, the money started flowing in, and this led to an economic boom for the population. When I visited these places, the thing that stood out for me was the huge dearth of foreign workers from Nepal, Bangladesh, Philippines, and the west along with the relatively small local population. In many cases, there are actually more foreigners than locals. As a guide told me in Qatar when we visited the fishing boats, "Foreigners work the boats, but the Qataris own the boats." This seemed to be true for Bahrain, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates as well. The amount of wealth in these places is truly unbelievable, and the wealth disparity is also clearly apparent.
Another thing that I found really interesting about the smaller Gulf States was how highly developed they were. Everywhere I looked, there was construction on a skyscraper. These skyscrapers were not boring designs either. Instead, they were intricately designed, and even though many of them were under construction or did not have tenants yet or were not full to capacity, they were architectural jewels and veritable pieces of eye candy that would put many cities and skyscrapers in the United States to shame. I was particularly impressed with Bahrain's World Trade Center, the skyline of Doha, the marina area of Dubai with yachts moored in the shadow of skyscrapers, and how one of the skyscrapers in Kuwait City lit up with the colors of the Kuwait flag each night.
Of course, what makes these Gulf States fascinating for visitors is the amount of wealth encompassed in such as small area. In each of these countries, I visited shopping malls, and particularly memorable was Dubai Mall with its HUGE aquarium wall and Bahrain's Moda Mall which had probably every high-end luxury brand a person can think of located inside (Rolex, Bulgari, Chopard, Mont Blanc, Hermes, Cartier, Tiffany, etc). Along the same line of wealth is the fact that Kuwaiti Dinar and Bahraini Dinar are two the world's most valuable currencies. It was a little bit hard for me to come to terms that a 20 Bahraini Dinar note was $53 or that a 20 Kuwaiti Dinar note is $65.
On the surface, even though these countries don't seem like they would offer much to a tourist, they are truly fascinating places where one can easily see a mix of religious devotion due to the many large mosques merged with what can be described a luxury life for those who are well off because of the luxury malls and the overall consumerist mindset. In my personal opinion, I would say that these are some of the more unique places I've been since I cannot think of any other countries that really shows this much contrast between tradition and modernity and humility with extravagance.
Have you visited the Gulf States before or lived there? I'd love to hear your thoughts.