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Gulf tourists need to be more curious about other cultures

Omar Al-Ubaydli

Published: Updated:

Gulf families frequently visit other countries as tourists. However, during their travels, they tend to fixate on shopping, leisure, beaches, and the countryside. They often lack interest in learning about the history and culture of the great nations they visit. This reflects a deeper lack of intellectual curiosity that our countries must rectify if our economic visions are to succeed.

Being a national of a country such as Kuwait, Qatar, or the UAE means that your living standards are considerably higher than the average global citizen planning their summer holidays. Step into a 5-star hotel in leading capitals such as Berlin, Canberra, or Paris. You will find that GCC nationals are wildly overrepresented as they invest their earnings in comfortable lodging for their travels.

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In general, Gulf tourists are ideal for the country hosting them: they are law-abiding, keep a low profile, and spend lots of money. Unlike many alcohol-consuming counterparts from other countries, you won’t see Gulf tourists answering calls of nature in the street in broad daylight or starting fights with locals at nightclubs.

For this reason, host countries will often make provisions targeting Gulf tourists, such as creating special visas for domestic helpers and hiring hospitality staff fluent in Arabic.

Unfortunately, Gulf citizens frequently squander the opportunities for self-enrichment afforded by international travel. They have an unhealthy obsession with locating shopping malls in their destination or simply walking around forests as they seek the greenery they lack in the arid lands of the Arabian Peninsula.

Many Gulf tourists cannot even conceive why someone would be interested in visiting a museum or a historical building. Moreover, should they accidentally find themselves on a tour of such a site they pay little attention to the guide, often because they cannot embed the information relayed to them in any broader knowledge of foreign cultures.

Their ability to communicate in anything beyond Arabic or English is woeful. They rarely make an effort to purchase a phrase book or deploy some of the language skills they should have picked up at school.

In a paper I wrote this year with my colleagues Deema Almoayyed and David Verhagen, we found that a typical American university has five area studies programs. They are academic units dedicated to the holistic study of a specific country or geographical areas, such as Chinese studies or Latin American studies. In contrast, across all of the 170 universities that exist in the GCC, there are precisely zero outward-looking area studies programs.

When discussing this phenomenon with academic administrators, it became apparent that a key reason for this asymmetry is that our peoples have low levels of curiosity about the rest of the world. It also explains why a PhD holder from the UK visiting Andalusia relishes the prospect of learning about the Islamic civilization that once occupied the Iberia. In contrast, a PhD holder from the GCC is more concerned with finding the latest designer clothes outlets or the best beaches.

The Gulf countries have correctly surmised that their economic survival depends upon transforming into vibrant, knowledge-based economies. That means emulating the existing systems in countries such as France, Mexico, and South Korea. Such an arduous undertaking requires an organic interest in learning about other countries.

When an elite policymaker from a Gulf country visits an advanced economy as a tourist, they should see it as an opportunity to deepen their knowledge of what makes that country successful. An understanding of its history and culture is critical to the process of comprehending a country’s strengths and weaknesses. The lack of such curiosity contributes to the superficial and poorly chosen policies that we frequently adopt from other countries, many of which fail or even backfire.

A lack of worldliness causes more than only economic damage – it runs counter to the basic tenets of our culture: Islam urges its adherents to learn about the rest of the world. The Islamic empire’s zenith came during the end of the first millennium, when it was a melting pot of a wide array of cultures and ethnicities, enriched by translating foreign scientific texts into Arabic. Today, our elites are much more interested in getting their hands on an Italian sports car than in learning about the world-class automotive engineering knowledge that drives it.

As with many cultural engineering projects, we must reform our school systems to encourage curiosity. Our curricula have emphasized rote learning and a lack of critical thinking for decades. Over time, Gulf citizens will hopefully learn to make better use of their Buenos Aires and Tokyo trips.

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