I was recently discussing with someone who had just moved back to the United States from Dubai why, if I were to visit the Middle East, I should visit Dubai. Their primary rationale for this argument was that everyone in Dubai speaks good English (a very good point for someone who has only studied Modern Standard Arabic and would probably get lost in an instant on a Gulf state’s street).
“Everyone speaks English, even taxi drivers and store clerks, it is mandatory. They say ‘We are not Saudi Arabia, so we must speak English!'” explains my conversant.
I found this explanation fascinating. Why the emphasized dichotomy between a Saudi Arabian identity and a Western, English speaking identity? Why was there no allegiance to a unique UAE or Dubai identity? And, if the emphasis on English is the definition of the UAE as a modern state, it returns to the infinitely regressive question, why must modernity be conflated with Westernism? Why the bipolar identification system?
Simply summarized, there are three primary distributions of power in a state centric world: unipolar, bipolar, and multipolar. Scholars tend to agree that unipolar and multipolar are the most stable systems, since there is either a single powerful hegemon to maintain order or there are multiple states in cooperative competition with one another that have the shared interest in maintaining order. By extension, most scholars agree that a bipolar world is the least stable of those three: the two states are in competition with each other for the single hegemon position, and while they may not challenge each other directly, proxy wars and forcing every other state around the world to choose sides creates a highly tense and anxiety ridden global system. The Cold War is the prime example of the dangers of the bipolar system.
If one extends the general principles of unipolar, bipolar, and multipolar systems to identity formation, it seems rational to assume the same benefits and dangers present themselves. States with a relatively homogenous, or unipolar, identity should be relatively free of conflict and stable, and states with many, equally powerful multipolar identities should also be relatively stable as it would be in every identity group’s interest to cooperate with the other identity groups to ensure their individual rights are respected. But states with two primary identities, whether or not they are equally powerful, could pose a very dangerous situation, with both groups vying for power over the other and everyone required to choose a side. The cost of losing could be extinction. Language that suggests there are two choices – being Saudi Arabia or being Western – sets up this potentially dangerous situation of a bipolar identification system.
But perhaps this bipolar identification system is what plagues the greater Middle East – Saudi Arabia standing in for more extremist, fervently religious identities along the lines of ISIS or Al-Shabaab, and the general “Western,” moderate identities. It is understandable why some might feel uncomfortable with a Western identity, since, by definition, a Western identity was forged in the West, by historical events in the West, according to Western values, for Western people. (Even saying “Western” is an oxymoron, e.g. British history, experiences, and values are similar but different to American history, experiences and values (at least enough that an American in Britain might easily find themselves confounded by certain practices)). But why must their only other choice be religious extremism, which is similarly lacking in uniqueness and local sensitivities, and therefore, by the same logic as a rejection of a Western identity, should also be rejected? Why can’t a unique identity based on local history, experiences, and values be a viable option?
I have no answer for where to find these unique, moderate identities, or how to culture them into viable choices that could create a multipolar identification system, but it is an important question to explore.