Haroon Moghul reviews Sean Foley’s new book: The Arab Gulf States: Beyond Oil and Islam:

We are in the midst of an unclear global transition, and Foley’s The Arab Gulf States: Beyond Oil and Islam should be seriously considered for its smart explanation of how the Arab Gulf has come to play the world role it does. Foley provides an approachable, interconnected and closely researched survey of the Gulf’s recent history, correctly observing that the region’s strengths and weaknesses are older and more complicated than we might assume. For that achievement alone, Foley’s book deserves the best praise an aspiring academic might hand off: This could easily be a textbook. […]

Foley does an especially good job describing Gulf Arab society. While he refutes common stereotypes, he doesn’t shy away from honest expositions of present predicaments. He explains the unkind 1990’s without pulling punches. With cheap labor flooding the region, the monarchies could continue avoiding the problem of underqualified natives demanding generous social services against oil receipts. Since the monarchs’ legitimacy hinged on providing for their citizens, such wealthy leaders could not plausibly cast their citizens into an unsubsidized competition against hungrier or more educated populations.

When oil prices slumped and al-Qaeda terrorism surfaced in Saudi Arabia, some wondered if this might be the end of the GCC as we knew it. (Though, as Foley intriguingly points out, as Arab republics go—Yemen, Algeria, Libya, Tunisia, Egypt, Syria, and Iraq—maybe monarchies are the saner option.) But the Dubai model popped up as first interruption and then salvation. Dubai inspired the GCC to find a different way of using its wealth to find stability and non prosperity. Foley does show how Dubai is both continuous with and disruptive of patterns in Arab Gulf states, and is nimble enough to suggest how creatively the GCC states have sought to deal with their problems.

But sometimes Foley allows his more rigid vision of the world to intrude on his academic approach. That takes something special from his project. In The Arab Gulf States, Foley defines hijab as a “traditional symbol of patriarchy,” although he doesn’t square this frankly dated judgment with his own observations. The increased observance of hijab goes with increasingly well-educated, professionally motivated Gulf women, far outpacing the men who allegedly dominate them sartorially (but not intellectually?). We are past the idea—hopefully, at least—that any recurrence of religion is retrograde, and what a symbol meant in one place or era is what it must mean in other contexts.

Sometimes Foley tries far too hard to change our picture of the Gulf. Describing the oil giant Aramco’s entrance into the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Foley writes: “Building on a tradition of Saudi-Wahhabi tolerance of religious minorities, the company won the right for its employers to practice Christianity in the kingdom…” This “tradition of Saudi-Wahhabi tolerance”—many Muslims take issue with such a description. I’m not even sure “Saudi-Wahhabi” ulama would so describe their interpretive perspective. (One of the problems in their interpretation is the denial of perspective.)

Toleration in today’s Gulf is a product of rapid industrialization colliding with past practices of cosmopolitanism. Before oil, the Gulf’s diverse populations were in many places hierarchically organized and separated by religion (less frequently, by ethnicity). To call the re-creation of segregated communities tolerance is to stretch the sense of tolerance without historicizing it. That doesn’t mean there aren’t alternate practices of tolerance, but once more we should be careful not to blur how something works in one place with how it works in another. […]

Read the entire review at Religion Dispatches.