In August, 1985, Sheik Zayed, the ruler of Abu Dhabi, paid a visit to North Yemen, where members of his tribe had lived more than 1,000 years ago. He made a point of touring the desolate northeast of the country, where lie the ruins of the Marib dam, which at one time irrigated hundreds of square miles. Marib is now part of the Empty Quarter, the vast and inhospitable desert that stretches into Saudi Arabia.
But, around 100 BC, it was a different story. From Marib, the Queen of Sheba ruled one of the world’s biggest empires in the shadow of a dam that irrigated land known locally as “the garden of god implanted on earth.” Her empire was founded on a Yemeni monopoly on the frankincense trade. When fashions changed, the trade collapsed and with it the Yemeni empire and the Marib dam. Tribes from the region scattered throughout the Gulf and nearly 2,000 years later were the principal beneficiaries of a new boom, this time in oil. Sheik Zayed’s sentimental journey resulted in a gift of $150 million to the North Yemenis to restore the Marib dam and make the desert bloom once again.
This story illustrates two key influences on the Arabs today: A strong sense of history, first, and then, enormous wealth. Both are central to understanding the modern Arabs, and yet the former has been almost totally ignored by the West, while the latter has been used as a reason for producing one of the most deceitful and dangerous stereotypes current in the media and politics today.
There are rare occasions when a serious attempt is made to look behind the facade, to strip away the propaganda and to examine the Arab world, a fragmented empire that today includes 168 million people in 18 countries covering 4.46 million square miles, an area 25% larger than the United States. David Lamb’s latest book, “The Arabs,” is the most recent and perhaps the best effort to examine the Middle East using a mixture of anecdote, description and analysis to bring the region to life.
For four years, Lamb was the Middle East correspondent of the Los Angeles Times, based in Cairo. While there, he earned a fine reputation covering a complex and faction-ridden beat with authority and balance.
Although Lamb rightly spends some time describing Arab history, he points out that it was not until 1973, when the Arabs united to impose an oil embargo on the West in retaliation for its supporting Israel in the Yom Kippur War, that the Arabs came to the attention of the world. This new awareness was born of the explosion in oil prices and the simultaneous arrival of Palestinian terrorism. For the ordinary citizen in the West, the Arabs swiftly became identified with increased prices at the pumps and with the bombings and assassinations that occurred with frightening regularity, often in the name of the Palestine Liberation Organization. This simplistic image was much less than the whole truth and played into the hands of Israeli propagandists who have continued to use it to drive a wedge between the Arabs and the Western democracies.
But, the Arabs have contributed to their own problems. Unimaginable wealth brought almost intolerable pressures on the social and religious fabric of peoples who, for centuries, had lived a simple existence in the desert. For many individuals, wealth brought a fleet of Rolls-Royces, gambling extravaganzas at Monte Carlo and homes in the fashionable Western resort decorated in the most gaudy style. Some countries, such as Aman, in less than a decade were brought out of a feudal existence where there was no running water, no electricity, telephones or doctors (all considered symbols of Western corruption) to a modern existence with all the trappings of a Western life style.
Running through this personal or national adjustment is the conservative influence of Islam, which has been a consistent source of tension between those who want to face up to a new world and those who fear the disintegration of tradition and family life. For a religion that has remained largely unchanged for hundreds of years and has been the guiding force for nations, families and individuals for generations, it is natural that any adjustment would be painful. But, as Lamb points out, what is particularly disturbing is the growing influence of those who wish to see a return to the old ways and a rejection of Western influence. This has spawned the Iranian revolution and a new generation of terrorism, which operates under the banner of Islam and has already committed atrocities on an unprecedented scale.
But, amid all the change and current uncertainty, there are grounds for optimism. Lamb recounts individual and national success stories that have produced an industrial complex that has diversified beyond dependence on oil; a new moderation that favors conciliation with Israel; and, above all, a greater understanding of the Western World. With the aid of books like this, it is possible that, in time, understanding may be reciprocated.