Race in Arab World: Is There a ‘$1 Million Advantage?’
Clearly, at least in the Gulf and most Arab speaking countries, issues of race have very little to do with the notion that ‘whites’ in general are superior to all forms of mankind. The matter has more to do with perceptions shaped by past and current media in the west where whites still dominate depictions of leadership and the normal western lifestyle. Many Arabs rely on these depictions for their impressions of the west. Most young Arab men I’ve talked to, who have never been to a western country, know nothing about the political and social history of the west and have limited experience or understanding outside the fictionalized scenarios on the Action Channel ( where ‘Niggers’ are drug dealers and guilty and white men are policemen and superheroes because most western TV shows portray them in this context). Though black Arabs are less preferred aesthetically by some, the notion of inferiority compared to other non-whites is universally considered preposterous if not a sign of mental disturbance in most of the Arab world. Understandably, the ‘true’ racism I’ve experience in the Middle East has come from Arabs (and Muslims) who were formally from countries under colonial rule.
“I went to market once for some groceries,” confided a white skin Arab colleague who’s English was near native: “the lines were long on the Arab speaking attendants in the various departments I visited were unhelpful and a bit surly in their tone. Despite the crowd in the market, there was only one line which I stood in for at least 30 minutes. The Filipino manning the cash register spoke English so I complained to him in English. He summoned the manager who spoke broken English and profusely apologized. When I told him about my experience he escorted me to the places I had been and reprimanded the workers in front of me; then escorted me to the door. They thought I was a native Englishman and so I got preferential treatment. “
What my friend’s shopping experience illustrates about the Middle East Arab’s own sense of inferior in the wake of the fad to adapt to western culture as a means to become more ‘global’ and advance. It is more pronounced in the Gulf countries; although many Arabs are reluctant to admit or discuss it.
The other day I was talking to a HR manager who confided that there was a double standard when his company hires people. He said that white Europeans or Americans can get hired on their looks while someone of color from the same places needed degrees and certificates. Some Arab management often hired whites that come along regardless their lack of qualifications. Some are wash outs from their own societies who could not obtain wages even remotely near what the Arabs offer in their native countries. Being white plus a CELTA beats being white in England or the US because of unemployment and the competition for jobs where disparities based on race and nationality are legally and socially resisted. In the Gulf however, a white face and a western accent may guarantee at least a good paying job at an institute even with no ESL training. College credentials and blond hair were grounds for a management position in more than a few places in the Gulf.
“We got a white applicant from a recently cancelled university language program whose experience and qualifications amounted to professional bartending. He had no diploma,” said a HR interviewer. As these teachers from the language program began to apply to different Education employers, their work histories bore witness to what has been common knowledge for years. Being white even with less education commands higher wages than the darker skin counterpart.
‘Maison-Dickson’ with a New Longitude is Not Quite About Race
It appears Jesse Jackson’s phrase “the million dollar advantage” to describe a white person’s capacity to earn more money than people of color in the west has benefits in the Middle East. Unlike the US, the situation upon which this postulate works isn’t about the belief in the inferiority of people of color. The reason: Arabs I talked to seem to feel that a white person in charge or/and working as employee is one of the ingredients for a successful business.
One might suppose it is like hiring a fat white senior citizen from Norway to dress as Santa Claus in contrast to some skinny black santa from South Jersey. Physically making the grade in the public mind may seem better to a toy store owner even if the black guy has more experience.
In this way it is easy to see why some Arab business men believe the image of western propriety and expertise is embodied in the image of the white face; particularly in the front office. Whites have the ‘look’ and ‘the touch.’ Supply and demand demands the facade despite prohibitions in Islam against this type of thinking. Ofcourse, there are qualified white Muslims of various persuasions whom find themselves on the receiving end of this state of affairs. Many have found the more religious they are, the less preferred they are on the market. This isn’t to say there aren’t Arabs that like religious western white Muslims. Let’s just say in the world of the bottom line, there don’t appear to be a whole lot of them. Never mind if they are clueless idiots, the ‘look’ of success (having a white man in charge or/and working for you)—especially on those government funded jobs when his presence in the office can keep anyone from looking to closely at what’s going on. Many employers want non-Muslim westerners because they believe authentic western culture will not be mitigated by conflicting Islamic practices or possibly bring to light the lack of religious ethics in day to day business operations.
Fortunately for the rest of us (non-white expats), and thanks to western propaganda that puts terrorist behind every sand dune, attracting top ranking ‘white’ personnel from the west isn’t easy. Most people in the west get put off by the travel advisory warnings for the region and elect not to even think about working in the Middle East.
“I asked my sister to come out to the Gulf after she retired. She worked for a Fortune 500 Company,” said a long time American expat with his own business in Riyadh. “She said she thought it was too dangerous.” Most expats who live in the Gulf know the most anyone has to fear is the ‘anything goes’ traffic and under-cook seafood. Neighborhoods where I came from had higher crime rates than the majority of the Gulf countries.
Even in these circumstances, race plays a role. I found that many Gulf Arabs (and Arabs from other places to boot) believe whites were ‘authentic’ Americans or Europeans while blacks and brown skinned applicants were inferior because they had adopted citizenship regardless their birth or Education and training. A person of color who claimed to be English or American would (more often than not) be questioned about his ‘true’ or original nationality—usually beginning with, “so where are you originally from?” Albeit you may be Algerian and white as the winter snow, but you need a western nationality to get the top salary.
This isn’t the only type of disparity practiced in the Gulf. The most common is that people are paid according to their nationality. Sources formerly from Bell International management have said that though Bell was required by British law to pay everyone with the same qualifications the same wage, universities in Saudi Arabia felt no such obligation. Their rate for non-indigenous Arabs regardless their qualifications was half that of westerners. It was the reason why, at a top university in the kingdom, a program director of the English Program (a Jordanian) got paid less than the western English teachers he supervised.
Another blatant example of disparity by nationality is in the area of domestic labor. Many Asian countries have highly regarded world rank universities yet Asians are considered inferior by Gulf Arabs. In the UAE, drivers and maids are often marketed by nationality. If you go to any domestic hiring agency, drivers and house maids are priced and cataloged by country of origin. Koreans are generally the highest paid while Africans are at the bottom. When I asked some locals why this state of affairs exist, they simply said the pricing has to do more with how much clout the foreign worker’s government has. The Gulf does what it does because they can and it is an acceptable practice like some sort of shrewd business decision based on a cultural ‘thing.’
When I taught at a university (in Saudi), I found most students did not know anything about World War I; the Korean War or the Vietnam War and even why they were fought (American students also tend to be in the same category of the blissfully ignorant about such historical trivia). Unless it had something to do with the World Cup, there seems to be a complete disconnect between world history (and current events) and what is commonly known on the Arabian Peninsula about where the rest of the world is coming from.
The Gulf Arab respect for others(the non-religious ones), despite living in the spiritual beating heart of Islam, tend to be very materialistic from a business culture point of view. In Gulf Arab culture, wealth and position rather than knowledge and ability determine status and respect. In other words, it is ‘the hype’ everyone’s buying. It must look valuable to be valuable. The situation seem more like opportunism; a trait as common as the abaya in the east (as well as the business community in the west), run-amok.
Pretending Spectacular Progress
This is not to say there aren’t white people at the top of their game who could come to the Gulf and do the job the Arabs dream they would do. The trouble is top professionals, of any race and nationality, generally have a problem being window dressing for his employer’s scheme to make more money and look good. Those who come, who take pride in their work quickly leave because, in most situations, their employers feel their money says what they say goes– not the expert. This is generally more true in the UAE than most places where native entitlements tend to give many Emirates ‘a free ride’ occupation no matter how they do on the job.
In addition, despite the ineffectiveness of ‘ground breaking’ programs, Gulf Education authorities tend to favor ‘module’ education peddled by the institutes because it allows students to rote learn bits and pieces; assessed by test with no authentic or practical application to prove learning has actually taken place. When 75 to 80% of your final grade is based on tests from a book, it is easy to do well–and with a fifty riyal doctor’s note at the end of the term, class attendance becomes a waved formality. Arabs do well at the British and American style ‘training’ institutes for this reason. Form regularly supersedes substance.
Why Ahmed Can’t See the Forest or the Trees
Advancement or development over time are not a familiar terms in the Gulf Arab scheme of progress. If a program isn’t instantly successful and makes everyone look good, it clearly viewed as ineffectual. I have personally worked at government and private schools in the UAE and Saudi that believe student improvement should be visible inside a month of starting anything new—and if progress can’t be proven by a paper test, they don’t want to hear about it.
Schemes for the Mojo of Success
The routine has been that in the Gulf (particularly with new so called visionary projects) when ‘the right (white) people’ are acquired, an unsavory Gulf Arab is put in charge as a way of usurping the credit for the success of a task through “leadership’ or ‘supervision.’ If it happens to turn out well, he takes the praise and if it bombs, he can blame the workers for not delivering what they promised. This might work if some Arabs did not believe that the person who supplies the money must know what he is doing by virtue that he has the money and made the decision to spend it this way. Combine with the believe that management of assets to yield the most financial gain is the sin quo non of every business endeavor whether it destroys the non-financial purposes of the business or not, it can make any strategy for real success unlikely.
When the Arab in charge (in a case like this), despite his ignorance, attempts to run the show through this way of thinking– the results can be, and usually are, disastrous. A good analogy for this would be a situation where a baker hires a carpenter to fix some stairs. The baker, who knows nothing about carpentry, micro-manages the carpenter: orders him to buy his choice in wood, nails and follow a particular design regardless the tradesman’s recommendations. When the stairs fail, the baker blames the carpenter; citing the carpenter’s poor craftsmanship rather than acknowledge his meddling and direct interference ruined the effort. No self respecting craftsman would participate in such a shameless scam that would put his reputation at risk– at least knowingly.
If marching forward is doing this moon-walk, the failure of Saudization; Emiratization and all the similar projects that have been advertised all over the Gulf as examples of spectacular progress and problem solving will have long gestations to say the least. It is not like the statistics concerning the lack of traction on making Arab-land more Arab has changed in most places in the five years or so I’ve been in the Gulf. After complaining about the way things are for years, it is easy to see why people just stop trying and take the money. I suppose most expats who have experienced this sort of ‘dump and dumber’ type of management technique have surmised these efforts on the part of Gulf businesses as a another version of the emperior’s new clothes. Some I’ve talked to have confided that a front row seat to what might prove to be a spectacular train wreck beats cuing an unemployment line in the west.
Like the embarrassing state of most Gulf militaries, Arab organizations and businesses can continue to play the game of ‘show and tell’ as long as no one cares what the bill is. My suggestion is that they should put real educators in charge of their education sector instead of merchants—but I think realizing this would require a situation that would make the value of knowledge and skills exceed wealth in the eyes of the general population. It might also be wise for Arab countries like Saudi Arabia to commission studies on the impact of western media on Arab culture and its social-psychological effects rather than wait for it to metastasize as a problem on the national psyche.
A View From My Glass House
Ironically, one could also argue that the No Child Left Behind Program, the test based plot conceived by G.W. and his gang to destroy US public schools by forcing them to inflate their stats; graduate illiterates and go with moronic “scientifically proven” methods (examples of which are candy washed down with sugary sodas do not cause hyperactive behavior in children and ‘sight’ learning as opposed learning phonetics (–instead of both) is the best way to learn English) because some research says so. The truth is you can produce research to justify almost any point of view. Just ask the tobacco companies. At any rate, the same problems exist in American schools as in Arabian schools for almost the same reasons.
As an American, a citizen of one of the most segregated places on world, being critical of Arab Education systems and its traditions of disparity compared to the racism and xenophobia I left back home seems hypocritical at best. I understand the desire of the east to emulate success marketed by the west as the apex of a materialistic lifestyle; but the reality of the ‘feel good’ mythic promise of US capitalism as a means of reaping the rewards of unlimited plenty these days has begun to resemble a rabid wolf eating its own pups. I must say, it appears less morally reprehensible than the image brought to mind when assessing the Gulf governments’ clever little plans to avoid the pitfalls of their western allies and emerge as a modern nation as the playful scamper of a tire dog chasing its own tail.
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by Abu Muhammed
Abu Muhammed is an American Muslim in Exile. He has a B.A.in English; a M.A. in Education.