Cultural Sensitivity or Surrender?

One of the most important lessons one learns from traveling abroad is to be culturally sensitive. A self-professed sophisticate like myself would never want to be considered to be the prototypical “Ugly American.”

Yet as I’m visiting the Persian Gulf kingdom of Qatar I’ve been thinking about who gets to decide on culture.

Most of us believe that certain practices are beyond the bounds of tolerance. Consider the Indian practice of suttee—the burning of widows—which Britain banned. Set aside whether the British government should have shown up with soldiers, guns, and warships and claimed the Indian subcontinent as its own; once there, surely it was right to forbid murder.

In a story that may be apocryphal but should be true even if not, an Indian complained to a British colonial official that it was tradition to burn widows on their deceased husbands’ funeral pyres. The official replied, according to the story, that it was British tradition to execute those who burned widows on their deceased husbands’ funeral pyres.

Of course, nothing like suttee is going on in Qatar. Indeed, as Muslim societies go, it is a pretty liberal place. Observance of conservative Islamic tenets is routine but often not deeply held. Some younger Qatar citizens (and TV cameramen!) look a lot like their Western counterparts. I wasn’t the only person on my flight to arrive wearing shorts. Hotels that cater to Westerners serve alcohol and provide Western television stations. Men and women use the gym together.

Still, visitors are warned to be sensitive, especially of dress. People should be modest in all circumstances. Shorts are tolerated, but should hit the knee. Shoulders should be covered.

In response, I left my short red running shorts at home. They are unexceptional in America, but I figured my longer gray gym shorts would be more appropriate for my daily walk. (My marathon-running days ended with a knee implant more than seven years ago.) I wore a muscle shirt in the gym and was going to change to a t-shirt for my walk, but it was hot and sunny even at 6:30 am. So I figured, what the heck? My hotel is in an isolated area in the midst of multiple construction projects, so I doubted there were many fundamentalists around who would be upset to see my shoulders. I repeated the experiment on the second morning without incident.

But should I even care? If I was visiting Pakistan (as I did a couple months ago) or one of many other “real” nations with a Muslim majority, I would answer “Of course.” But citizens of Qatar, like most of the other Gulf sheikdoms, have effectively subcontracted their society to others. Oil wealth means the government, which essentially is a wholly-owned subsidiary of the al-Thani royal family, hires foreigners to fill most jobs except security.

Hotel staff, drivers, construction workers, sound and video personnel, airport workers, and most everyone else, skilled and unskilled alike, are foreigners. Qatar’s population is roughly 1.9 million. Barely 250,000 of them are citizens, less than 15 percent. In a contract sense, the 250,000 have a perfect right to hire whoever they want with whatever conditions they want. That could include respecting the local culture.

However, people do not come as empty vessels. They have beliefs and habits. Together they have communal practices that reappear when they congregate together. In Qatar one quarter of the population is from India. Another 25 percent comes from elsewhere in the Indian subcontinent—Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka. One out of 10 comes from the Philippines. Some of these foreign residents are Muslim, but most are not. Add the many tourists and businessmen who visit and Qatar looks even less traditional. In sum, Qatar today is a different Qatar from yesterday. It is unreasonable to expect Qatar’s culture to be unaffected by the change.

It’s really a matter of choice. If you submerge your society in foreigners who believe and act differently than yourself, can you really expect them not to act as they believe in your nation? Or should you accept the fact that you are inviting in their culture along with them? So don’t complain if they wear skimpy clothes, drink different liquids, follow other religions, and so on.

I still have the feeling that I’m a guest here and don’t want to act like the Ugly American. But I’m feeling a bit less sympathetic about local cultural sensitivities. Almost everyone I’ve met here in Qatar is from somewhere else. Who should get to decide what culture in Qatar should be?