INSHALLAH:



A PRIVATE SCHOOL FOR PRIVILEGED KUWAITI
YOUTH ATTEMPTS TO STRADDLE A CULTURAL DIVIDE (continued)



Chapter 03 ARAB CULTURE IN GENERAL: SOME COMPARISONS AND CONTRASTS WITH THE WEST

 

 

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III. ARAB CULTURE IN GENERAL: SOME COMPARISONS
AND CONTRASTS WITH THE WEST

 

A. Is There Such a Thing As Arab Culture?

As a first step to considering the situation at Al-Dharra, this study will try to differentiate between Arab culture in general and Western culture.

As the work of Edward Said (1978) points out, to do this invites a number of difficulties. How can one describe "Arabic culture," when, in fact, "Arabs" live in twenty-five different countries, speak dialects so different they often cannot understand one another, and do not even all practice the same religion? Such an attempt might lead to either generalities so empty as to have no meaning or to blanket statements with exceptions so numerous that they mean nothing.

In fact, however, the situation is not as difficult as one might imagine. First, despite the fact that Kuwait includes a population over fifty percent non-Kuwaiti, the Arab portion of that population comes from a relatively small number of countries: Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, and Palestine.

Second, Al-Dharra does not hire Arabs of twenty-five different nationalities to work at the school. Rather, like most local businesses, it hires different nationalities to fill different positions. ADM hires Egyptian guards and Levantine teachers: Syrians, Lebanese, and especially Palestinians. Important points do divide the Levantines from the Gulf Arabs, and these will become clearer after discussing the Kuwaitis themselves.

Having said this, note that many Arabs themselves perceive the Arabs as one nation artificially divided by colonialism. From this belief arose the political philosophies of Arab Nationalism in Egypt (1953-1970) and Baathism (1960-date). The second of these two philosophies, the official state ideology of both Iraq and Syria, purposely tries to ignore religious distinctions between Arabs in countries such as Lebanon and Syria by emphasizing the commonalties in the Arab "nation." Statements about the "Arab nation" appear in writers such as An-Naquib (An-Naquib, 1988) as well as in statements that appear in various editorials in the Kuwait newspapers. Indeed, one of the main opposition blocs in Parliament holds to a basically Arab Nationalist ideology (Tetreault, 1991).

This analysis will not go so far as to describe an "Arab Nation," but it will assume there exists such a thing as an Arab that one can differentiate from, say, a European. Within this general category of Arabs, one can further distinguish sub-categories such as Levantine Arabs and Gulf Arabs, just as one can meaningfully distinguish between Northern Europeans and Southern Europeans. Within these sub-categories, one can further subdivide between, for example, Kuwaitis and Saudis, just as one can distinguish between Germans and Austrians. Finally, within these smaller categories one can even distinguish by regions or classes, i.e., the Bedouin and the Asil.

To show the relevance of such a general category, consider the concept of "honor-killing" which holds that if a girl dishonors the family through too much contact with males, her male relatives have the duty to kill her. In a country as Westernized as Lebanon such a killing would probably not occur, certainly not among the Christians. An honor-killing three months ago in Kuwait merited front-page news coverage, and well it might since such a killing had not happened in the four years of this researcher’s stay in Kuwait. On the other hand, Jordan reports hundreds of such killings a year. According to the anonymous subject of Princess (Sasson, 2001), a Saud of the royal family, many more honor killings occur in Saudi Arabia, but the country’s press censorship keeps them out of the news. Significantly, the Kuwaiti killing happened among the newly naturalized Kuwaiti Bedouin, not the old, established families. This example, then, seems to suggest almost no cultural continuity between the Arabs, with the Saudis killing girls with impunity and the Lebanese not doing much or anything about "stained honor."

However, one must proceed cautiously. In fact, all of the countries above, Kuwait, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Lebanon, adhere to the same belief that a family’s "honor" depends on the behavior of females (Patai, 1973; Al-Thakeb, 1978; The Economist 353c, 1999), so females in all of the countries must act with some caution when dealing with males, a view reinforced by the findings in the AWSIT structured interviews reviewed in chapter thirteen. Only the severity of the consequences differ between Arab societies. In Kuwait, while a family would not kill a "dishonored" female, such a girl would marry with extreme difficulty and suffer other consequences. Hence, one might set up an honor scale (below):

Notice that the top lines contain two different measures. The top line pertains to the consequences to the girl herself. The second line considers the consequences to the family member whose action "restores the family honor" by killing or punishing the girl.

The entire concept, of course, differs markedly from any Western notions of family honor. To most Westerners, frankly, the entire idea seems strange, but not to an Arab. When this author showed Kuwaiti students the movie Romeo and Juliet and the famous balcony scene, students repeatedly asked what would happen if Juliet’s family caught them together:

He replied: "They might kill Romeo."

This answer seemed to baffle them. Over and over they asked, "You mean they would not kill Juliet?"

Clearly, a basic concept of morality divides the American from the Kuwaitis and the West from the Arab world, though even within the West one finds some variation. Thus, one might extend the drawing above to include the West:


For that reason, this study will begin with a description of "Arab" culture and particularly its contrast with the West. After this, the fifth chapter will differentiate Kuwaiti culture, specifically the culture of the long-time resident, merchant "Asil," from more general Arab culture.



B. General Differentiation Between American and Arab Culture

For a fuller exploration of the concept of cultural differentiation, this paper will turn to the work of Geert Hofstede in conjunction with the work of other authors writing more specifically about Arab culture. Hofstede's (1991) work, written for businessmen, explains that many differences exist between national cultures. These differences surpass those of differences within a given organization, and some scholars argue (Ali, 1995) that these tend to actually increase with industrialization.

In this case, note some of the dissimilarities Hofstede (1991) finds between American culture and Arab culture:

The Arabs and Americans appear in diametrically opposed quadrants. The American orientation, weak uncertainty avoidance and individualistic, indicates individuals who thrive in a relatively undefined situation and work best alone. The Arabs, on the other hand, appear in the quadrant with a high level of group cohesion and high uncertainty avoidance. This cultural differentiation re-appears in Hofstede's discussion of individualism and power distance (below):

Figure 3.4: Individualism and Power Distance

These terms need some further explanation. "Power distance" refers to the relative degree of equality between persons holding different levels of authority in an organization. In a culture with a large power distance, a boss would treat an underling as very much beneath notice; an American would treat that individual as more of "team member." Later sections will show that within Kuwaiti culture the fact that the underling often comes from a nationality regarded as "inferior" reinforces this sense of distance.

"Uncertainty avoidance" refers to the need for members of a culture to know a given way to act in a particular situation. In high uncertainty avoidance cultures, including Arab culture, individuals tend to follow a specific set of rules that lessen uncertainty. American culture, in contrast, holds a looser set of expectations, allowing individuals a higher degree of flexibility in improvising and creating norms in new situations.

Finally, the term "collectivist" refers to a culture that commonly decides as a group for most purposes while "individualist" refers to a culture in which individuals largely make their own decisions. Note that Arab culture can be both collectivist and hold a large power distance. This simply implies that those at a certain level, such as all managers, will decide on a particular action, not that decision-making necessarily involves everyone in a group, high and low. Other authors (Marr, 1987) confirm Hofstede's characterization of Arab culture as collectivist and fundamentally different from American (Porter and Samovar, 1976). Notably, Ali, the foremost scholar on Arab management, while lamenting the truthfulness of most of the assertions above, agrees with them (Ali, 1991). In his study of Kuwaiti managers and Arab foreign managers of Kuwait companies, he found no significant difference between the two (Ali, 1997):

The collectivism of both groups attests to the similarity of cultural up-bringing among Arab participants, regardless of their country of origin. Islamic teaching and Arab traditions that place emphasis on group loyalty, respect for the family, and humbleness in dealing with other people thus may influence employees and managers in the work setting. In addition, our results do not support the hypothesis of Triandis et al. (1988) that individualism flourishes in a society with substantial numbers of immigrants and a rapid social and geographic mobility. (p. 637, emphasis added)

As following sections will show, Triandis’ conclusions might hold more merit than Ali allows because, while one can describe Kuwaiti as a society with high immigration, social mobility only occurs within prescribed boundaries.

Ralph Patai’s The Arab Mind (1973), agreeing with Hofstede, defines Arab society as tight-conforming, rule-bound, and group-oriented. Children learn from their elders and sources of authority the "correct behavior" with low toleration for individuality or creativity. Recent studies at Kuwait University confirm Patai's characterization (Soliman and Torrance, 1986).

The following discussion will follow what seems, then, the main characteristics that these studies find as differentiating Arab culture from that of the West and, in particular, American culture: a collectivist, tribal world view, an emphasis on the family, deference to authority, rule-importance, and the concept of "face."

 

C. Collectivism

In a way, this first point provides a transition to those that follow. One can basically describe Arab society as "communitarian" or, perhaps more correctly, as "tribal" (Metz 1994; Hofstede, 1990). Arab society tends to perceive individuals as integral parts of a unit. The positive aspects of this orientation include loyalty, friendship, and closeness, while the negative aspects include a lack of freedom, the suppression of individualism, and adherence to a group code of behavior that may conflict with that of an individual.

Before proceeding, it makes sense to clarify that Hofstede’s work does not mean to absolutely assign cultures or individuals to categories. Nor does this study. Rather, these constitute relative measures and general tendencies. Hence, one can define a culture or individual as more or less collective and measure "collectivism:"

Logically, then, it should follow that some Arab societies and groups exhibit more collectivism than others. However, the studies of Al-Thakeb (1982; 1985) and Ghabra (1988; 1997 II) on Kuwaitis and Palestinians, cited below, two very modern groups of Arabs, suggest that all Arab societies tend towards the collectivist end of the scale, even the most educated and most affluent, so that one can speak in general terms of Arabs as "very collectivist."

In a collectivist society, individuals sacrifice their individuality, to some degree, in order to enhance their ties to the group. Individuals see themselves as part of a group, not as individuals. Historically Arab society fits this description (Abu-Saad 1998; Abu-Saad and Hendrix 1998; Hofstede, 1984). As Abu-Saad elaborates (1998):

Arab society....has tended to de-emphasize the individual as an end in and of itself and emphasize instead the network of obligations and responsibilities that the individual assumes as a member of his or her family and his or her immediate community. Traditional Arab values put more emphasis on the group than on the individual, on solidarity than on the activity and needs of the individual, and on the communion of persons [rather] than on their autonomy. (p. 377)

In a collective society, one cannot meaningfully distinguish between public life and private life (Abu-Saad & Hendrix, 1995; Hofstede, 1984). As Abu-Saad emphasizes (Abu-Saad, 1998), "In collectivist societies, there is no clear line between job life and private life, so relationships (both within and outside of the job) take precedence over work tasks" (p. 377). This logically follows because in a collectivist society, the individual constantly endeavors to advance the aims of the group and to cement his or her ties to the group. An individual’s aims, such as creating a new business, for example, could cause potential conflict within the group. Ideally, the group member solves that problem by trying to make the interests of both coincide, such as by hiring group members or by taking on a partner from within the group. Some examples of student behavior in chapter fourteen illustrate this. In the end, though, if sacrifice occurs, it means that the individual gives from himself (Barakat, 1993):

Individuals engage in unlimited commitments to the group. Instead of asserting their separateness and privacy as independent individuals, they behave as committed members of a group-hence the significance of family, tribe, neighborhood, community, village, sect, and so forth. Generally speaking, one may claim that the need for affiliation is nurtured at the expense of needs for power and achievement. In fact, however, the latter two needs are often met through affiliation. (pp. 203-204)

While other writers favor the term "collectivist," (Abu-Said and Hendrix, 1995; Hofstede, 1990), this author prefers the term "tribal" (Mortimer, 1994) because it gives, correctly, a sense that the values arise from social organization and helps to put the derivation of this collectivism into an historical context. Further, it best suits a society with, as the next chapter will explain, a traditional orientation and with affiliation arranged on a tribal basis.

Another problem with the term "collectivism," at least in describing Arab society, stems from the fact that it gives the impression of a permanent group with individuals having membership as in a collectivist commune, a peasant village, a club. In fact, a tribal society contains an ever-widening circle of groups of which a person might become a member. Some of these groups meet regularly while others, such as the Bedouin "khamsa," the five generational revenge group (Khalef, 1990), remain latent until called into action.

Here, the term "tribalism" works better (An-Naquib, 1990). A tribe consists of units and sub-units, and even sub-sub units, loosely bound, which tend to assemble or disassemble in response to external events. Moreover, a tribe may have crosscutting moieties, organizations that include some members but not others. Here, an old Arabic proverb, quoted by Patai (1973) and apparently well-known across the Arab world, best illustrates the concept: "Me against my brother. Me and my brother against the neighbors. Me, my brother, and the neighbors against the next village, [etc.]...."

Note how this statement illustrates two different points. First, the individual belongs to many groups, but, in general, they build upon one another logically and progressively. Second, the groups, such as "me, my brothers, and the neighbors," do not exist until called into action. While this concept holds obvious importance, as this analysis will show later, for groups such as the Asil who trace their lineage to the desert-dwelling Bedouin, it also holds true for long-time city-dwellers such as the Palestinians and urban Lebanese whose behavior often runs on tribal lines.

The following drawing, adapted from Patai, illustrates the world of a given Arab individual. Note how a very similar drawing occurs in the chapter eight, which discusses the world of Al-Dharra Madressor School.

Figure 3.6: Adapted From Patai, an Arab World Conception


The greater the distance from the center of the circle, the greater the level of mistrust (Patai, 1973). Within a group, depicted as a circle on the drawing above, individuals have a greater fear of losing face (Marr, 1987; Patai, 1973) than of doing wrong. Persons within the group try to maintain the dignity and smooth running of the group as a primary value, even above that of written rules or procedures.

To understand this view requires working outward. Note that, with rare exceptions, the further one travels from the center, the lesser the bonds of loyalty and the sense of membership. Thus, an Arab takes cares of his family before his village or country. To put this into historical context, one can even view events such as the destructive Civil War between the Omayyids and Abbassids as essentially a conflict between two families.

To make one final comment on this communitarianism, the following statement by this researcher describes Kuwaiti society particularly, but all of Arabic society to some degree, "Who you are is more important than what you do."

"Who you are" comes from your membership in various groups. Birth, of course, plays a part in this, but so does marriage. Further, wrong behavior, violating group norms, can result in group censure, even ouster. In Kuwait, the government houses divorced women and their children in a much worse section of the city than married families (Crystal, 1995).

A Westerner might see the above assertion as necessarily limiting and certainly "unfair." It seems to imply that a sheik’s son can murder people. In reality, "who you are" often dictates "what you can do." Having the right connections can allow achievement that might not otherwise occur and give chances to those for whom merit alone would dictate less. Conversely, the talented might find their way impeded because of their position in society. Indeed, as following chapters will show, group membership does put some absolute ceilings and floors on achievement. No one, for example, except an Al-Sabah can become Kuwait’s prime minister (Metz, 1994). Having established this schema, the analysis next looks at the most important circle, the family.



D. The Family: The Center

To understand Arab society requires working outward from this center. In the inner circle lies the family, and within a nuclear Arab family the father remains the key figure. Often considerably older than the mother, the father retains most authority (Patai, 1973; Cowan, 1987). Less than 10% of all Kuwaiti women actually work (Tetreault, 1993; 1995; 2000) and women take a lesser, but still significant, role in society.

In most family decisions, the father decides, and children listen rather than debate with parents. Fathers often determine such matters as a young man's career and the girl he marries (Marr, 1987; Al-Thakeb, 1982; Al-Thakeb, 1995). El Feky (1991), studying post-war married young adults, classifies them as both "authoritarian" and "protective," the latter word meaning that parents try to shield children from the pressures of daily life, a subject for further discussion later. The authoritarian, obviously, relates to high parental authority.

However, to an Arab "family" means more than the nuclear family. Unlike Westerners, Arabs did not lose regular contact with their extended family until relatively late in their history, if at all. Even in cosmopolitan Lebanon, many city-dwellers go home to visit their extended families every weekend. Even the Palestinians, the most scattered of the Arab peoples, often go to extraordinary lengths to maintain their kindred relationships (Ghabra, 1988).

In this context, the work of Al-Thakeb (1982; 1985) can provide considerable insight. While Al-Thakeb did the majority of his research in Kuwait, he worked with a number of different Arab groups and extends his conclusions to cover the "Arab family" (1985) in general. Al-Thakeb, following on the work of Goode (1963), confirms the importance of the Arab extended family or kindred group. Al-Thakeb argues that Arab society's response to modernization consists in simply altering or updating the form, not the function, of the extended family. The Arab family substitutes modern methods of maintaining close ties, such as email, pagers, and telephones, for the more traditional one of living in close proximity. Thus, the Kuwaitis, among the most affluent and modernized of all Arabs, paradoxically maintain kindred ties at least as strong as those of their poorer, less-educated brethren (Al-Thakeb, 1985). Differing means, proximity and mass-communication, allow the same end, a continuation of extended family ties.

Al-Thakeb's (1985) data concerning the Kuwaitis seems to show tight family cohesion. Al-Thakeb finds nearly half (48%) of his sample married relatives, particularly first cousins (78%). A further 59% say they prefer to marry a relative. While 43% of those surveyed have a grown sibling living next door, a further 80% of those studied visit their kin daily or weekly.

This kindred unit continues to support individuals in various ways. Al-Thakeb reports that over 50% of all Kuwaitis state they would aid kindred in such matters as illness, finances, employment, personal problems, and business problems. Nearly a quarter (24%) have a related business partner, and an even greater number (27%) have relatives in the same governmental office. Some questions on the AWSIT in chapter thirteen particularly give respondents a chance to respond to questions regarding these types of situations and generally confirm Al-Thakeb.

These kindred networks tend to operate as a cohesive whole. Al-Thakeb finds arguments among kin few and short-lived. Further, these disagreements reach settlement within the kindred group without reference to outside authorities. While Al-Thakeb reports the best-educated the least likely to marry within the family, primarily due to fear of perpetuating genetic defects, this group also provides and requests the highest amount of assistance from kin (Al-Thakeb, 1982). Overall, half the respondents indicate they would consult a relative in case of a crisis situation. This may not sound so spectacular, but remember that "relative" in this case may mean a distant cousin. As Jill Crystal (1996) explains:

[The] extended family is the basic instrument for wielding any kind of power: social, economic, or political. Families have histories (and historians), ideologies (articulated through genealogy), and institutions.....There is no social standing outside of the family and most people in the Gulf marry early and stay married, remarrying if necessary. Even unmarried people, especially women, continue to live in families. (p. 267)

Significantly, Al-Thakeb’s work concentrates on two different groups of relevance to this study, the Palestinians and the Kuwaitis. His conclusions do not differ markedly between the two groups. Indeed, one must perceive the ability of Palestinians to maintain similar levels of family contact and adhesion with fewer resources and considerable obstacles as a real achievement and a measure of their commitment to their kin (Ghabra, 1988). In turn, families form the building blocks for larger social units (Crystal, 1996):

The family is the factor that oils the system; it provides the informal links that keep otherwise different groups, with potentially different interests, working together. It prevents sharp polarization...representing the family's interests to the state, but also representing the state to the family....[Families are the] building blocks for other social groups. (p. 268)

From the family one can move outward to the next circle.

 

E. Relations With Those Beyond the Family

The statement "Me and my brother against our cousins," the ironic title of the headlines of Time magazine’s report (Smolowe, 1990) on Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait, requires considering the degree of affiliation between individuals as relationships move beyond the family. Generally, the closer the affiliation, the stronger the degree of loyalty.

The following chapters will trace the history of Al-Dharra Madressor School. That means, in reality, considering the history of one group of families, the Al-Maleks, Al-Sharqs, Al-Sharifas, Al-Zohras, and the Al-Kunaie, the "Five Families," who form the core population of Al-Dharra. They, in turn, belong to a larger group of families related to the Bani Utub, who migrated from Saudi Arabia.

As later chapters will show, in times of need, both of these groups unite for specific purposes. The Five Families, for example, continued to fund the school when it lost money year after year (ADM 8, 1996). The Asil as a whole, similarly, as the fifth chapter will show, united in the past in the face of opposition from the Bedouin and the Islamists (Crystal, 1996; Ismael, 1982). All of the Kuwaitis, including the Bedouin and Asil, in turn, united during the Iraqi occupation (Bennet, 1991; Al-Khansa, 2001). Thus, the drawing below shows more circles but still outsiders at the edges, in this case the Iraqis:

Figure 3.7: Me, My Brother, and My Cousins Against the Iraqis


To move still further from the center, consider the relations of the Palestinians and Kuwaitis. Despite the serious problems between the Palestinians and Kuwaitis noted later in this study, the Kuwaiti government still espouses pro-Palestinian, i.e., "pro-Arab" positions, even when these conflict with those of its military ally, the United States (Dickey, 1994). In this case, another circle would include all Arabs, with the Americans and Israelis lying outside.

No matter what, someone will lie outside these circles of affiliation. The traditional Bedouin punishment for serious criminals consisted in expelling them (Khalef, 1995). An outcast effectively lost all his relationships since he lost those of his birth and could expect no acceptance from strangers. No longer a member of his own family and tribe, he could expect nothing, figuratively a death sentence and often literally as well.

Some individuals, however, simply do not easily fit within the schema. Visiting Westerners make a perfect example. These individuals become "outsiders" for reasons beyond their own control due to their culture and (usually) their religion. Yet, for business reasons they end up in constant contact with Arabs.

Patai (1973) maintains that Arabs generally look upon outsiders with fear and suspicion. In fact, individuals outside the group often receive the cold, formal treatment that to Westerners seems unexceptional. In other words, their treatment tends to follow the letter of the law, the bureaucratic procedure, or formal courtesy, whereas all others, depending upon the strength of their ties to the individual, receive progressively more personal treatment.

When possible, Arabs attempt to place strangers within this series of relations (Patai, 1973). American educators often note with surprise the efforts of Arab college-age students to treat them as surrogate mothers and fathers (Marr, 1987; Meleis, 1982). Western businessmen find that they cannot successfully conduct business in an impersonal way; rather, Arabs expect to work out a personal and business relationship at the same time, with the latter depending on the former (Ali, 1987). As The Kuwaiti Pocket Guide’s business section goes so far as to assert (Kennedy, 1998), "There are no purely business relationships in Kuwait" (p. 123). Having traveled a bit in the Arabic world, this researcher might broaden this to state, "There are no purely business relationships in the Arab World."

Logically, one might expect the upper class Kuwaitis, the Asil, to behave somewhat differently. In terms of marriage and use of kindred, as stated above, they do not seem to differ from their poorer brethren. Al-Naser (1996) finds that, indeed, the more Western-exposed upper classes do differ somewhat in their relatively liberal attitudes towards women's education, marriage, and politics, but concludes:

Society is in a stage between tradition and modernization in which traditional and modern values exist together, and an individual may follow either, depending on his/her exposure to change and upon family or other social institutions. (p. 17)

Indeed, almost 14 years before, Farah (1982) found largely the same thing. Further, his studies of Lebanese, Yemenis, Palestinians, and Kuwaitis could not differentiate between these groups in terms of their beliefs. Farah concludes regarding a group of Kuwait University students (Farah, 1982) "though probably less traditional than their parents, [they] are nevertheless traditional people with modern wrappings....To ‘modernized’ Kuwaitis and Lebanese, modernization is not an either-or proposition" (p. 174, emphasis added).

Before turning to the Asil, the subject of the next chapter, it makes some sense to distinguish what one might call Arab values. In other words, if the Arab individual’s rules come largely from the tribe, what values does one find in that tribe. After all, Hofstede (1991) identifies other cultures than Arab as communitarian.



F. Hierarchialism

A key characteristic of Arab culture consists in hierarchical arrangements of power and influence (Abu-Saad and Hendrix, 1993). This conforms to the characteristics, listed above, of "uncertainty avoidance" and "large power distance" (Hofstede, 1991). If everyone knows his or her place, this minimizes uncertainty.

In this respect, Arabs do not differ markedly from Asian societies such as those of Japan or Korea in which the title on your business card tends to define the manner of your treatment. Further, as in Asia, age often defines place, with the eldest accorded the highest respect and the highest position. However, in those Asian societies, business cards serve to place individuals within categories according to their profession and education, i.e., categories based at least partly on achievement. In this respect, Asian societies come closer to the West, in which the first question upon introduction usually inquires: "What do you do for a living?"

In the Arab world, in contrast, distance from the individual may have as much importance as age or title. For example, this author once watched the son of an important Kuwaiti businessman verbally berate a non-Kuwaiti obviously his superior in knowledge, age, and experience. The young man’s Kuwaiti citizenship, in this instance, ranked him higher than the Syrian. Correspondingly, in the Arab world individuals typically first ask: "Whose son are you, and who is your father?" This places a person in terms of family and nationality.

This can lead to some obvious problems. For example, what happens if a person with relatively high position in a company hierarchy does not have the right family connections? Conversely, what if someone with strong family connections holds a weak position? Obviously, each situation would lead to ambiguity and uncertainty.

Arab organizations often bridge this contradiction between social and organizational rank by building what Abd Al-Khaliq calls a "sheikocracy" (Abd Al-Khaliq, 1984 in Ali, 1995), an institution that looks from the outside like a formal bureaucracy but operates in the traditional manner of an Arab tribe with personal relations taking precedence over and supplementing the formal arrangements of power. Abbas Ali, the most prominent Arab management theorist, defines this institution in the following manner (1995):

The characteristics of sheikocracy include hierarchical authority, rules and regulations contingent on the personality and power of the individuals who make them, an "open-door" policy, subordination of efficiency to human relations and personal connections, indecisiveness, informality among lower-level managers, and a generally patriarchal approach. Nepotism is often evident in the selection of upper-level managers, but qualifications are emphasized in the selection of middle and lower level personnel. Chain of command, scalar principles, and division of labor are also characteristics of the sheikocracy. They are not as strictly observed as in the West.

A sheikocracy can occur in several different social organizations, a company, a governmental bureau, and even in certain marriage arrangements. In each case, the hierarchy of the tribe becomes that of the organization. These organizations include, respectively, the family-owned business, the "sheikly bureau," and the arranged marriage.

In the family-owned business, the most prevalent form in Kuwait and the Arab world (Kennedy, 1998), explored more thoroughly in chapter five, the family’s hierarchical arrangements of power become the formal arrangements of the business. Hence, two sons may become managers of the divisions while the father retains control of the whole operation. Alternately, two cousins might go into business as partners. A larger company will simply include more of the family, pooling more funds and more of the family’s organization. Family authority becomes a pre-requisite for higher positions, which Ali refers to as "nepotism." Hence, everyone receives the respect accorded to their formal position in the Westernized world, but, in reality, respect comes from position within the family, not from formal position (Ali, 1995). Further, outsiders, farther from the circle, end up lower in the chain of command. A family business also avoids the "uncertainty" of taking on unknown partners.

The arranged marriage follows the same sort of logic. Typically, such an arranged marriage takes place among relatives, especially cousins. This allows the family to avoid bringing outsiders into its midst. Further, it guarantees the new spouse will fit within the family structure and respect the elders properly (Al-Thakeb, 1985; ADM 17, 1998).

In a sheikly bureau, the person with the most important social connections becomes head of the bureau. He then proceeds to treat the bureau largely as his tribal preserve, filling the most important positions with those tied to him. The concepts of bureaucratic efficiency (Weber, 1958) remain secondary to that of satisfying the demands of the group. As a simple example, one bureaucrat working for the Kuwait Passport Ministry did not show up for work for eighteen months. His uncle, his superior, only fired him when an external auditor happened to discover the situation. Needless to say, the fired man received his pay during that eighteen-month period.

This hierarchical outlook makes those at the bottom hesitant to challenge those above them, such as fathers, professors, or bosses. Safi (1996), when trying to survey a group of students at Kuwait's technical university, found students extremely unwilling to offer judgmental opinions about their professors even under the cloak of anonymity. Students thought the concept rather unsettling. This leads into the whole concept of rules and behavior.



G. Rule-Bound

The necessity for clear rules follows logically from Hofstede’s statement about uncertainty avoidance. The clearer the rules, the lesser the uncertainty. The rules in the Arab world typically come from two sources: (a) group norms (Witkins, 1978) and (b) the Koran; often these reinforce one another.

Islam resembles Judaism in that it provides a fairly concise description of how to live. Students do not study the Koran so much as they learn it. Traditional Arab mosque schools, "madressors," in fact, concentrate largely on having students memorize large sections of the Koran. The religious teacher, like the father in the home, remains the center of authority and students mere respectful vehicles for absorbing information (Betts, 1978), a subject returned to in chapter seven. A top Islamic scholar merits praise not for his original thought but from his ability to find, explain, and amplify, not interpret, the correct sections of the Koran.

Ideally, the Koran gives the exact recipe for behavior; if not, the Sunna or Hadith, the traditions and sayings of the Prophet, give the information. These books give quite detailed descriptions of whether a person should, for example, brush his teeth, wear a certain type of clothing, beat his children, and attempt intercourse during his wife’s menstruation. To a greater degree than Westerners, though not absolutely, Arabs and Muslims, in general, tend to look for "correct" answers, a tradition continued in Arab public schools.

When Kuwait University students took one of Kohlberg's moral reasoning tests at Kuwait University (Gielen and Others, 1992), students, on average, scored noticeably lower than those given the same test in Taiwan and comparable groups of Western college students. In fact, the test results, and the high number of discards in rich Kuwait closely resembled those in poor Sudan, with whom it shares a religion and language.

Importantly, these Kuwaiti and Sudanese young adults ended up on level three of the scale, which emphasizes strict adherence to rules rather than challenging them or examining the principles behind them. Further, the study found that greater education did not seem to affect these scores. The researchers ended up throwing out a vast number of tests due to inconsistent results and remarked that students found the moral dilemma questions "strange." The researchers reasoned that the test had no relevance for Arabic students (Gielen and Others, 1992).

This does not, in any way, suggest a defense of Kohlberg’s moral reasoning tests which many have attacked for a variety of reasons, including culture and gender bias. Rather, however, the test does offer a description of a certain set of ethical assumptions whether one agrees to rank them as Kohlberg does or not. This description suggests certain facts about Arab culture, including the difficulty of posing a Kohlbergian moral dilemma to an Arab. Morality comes as a given in Arab culture, not as something puzzled over. If, for example, the Koran appears to contradict itself or the Hadith, invariably a Muslim argues that the error lies in the interpreter and that the contradiction does not exist. In fact, since Muslims regard the Koran as Divinely written, not Divinely inspired, and perfect, to say that it contradicts itself makes no sense: How can an omnipotent God make a mistake?

This concept of a clear set of rules spills over into secular behavior as well. While Arab students find a number of behaviors "haram," forbidden, they typically react to situations not clearly forbidden in one of two fashions. First, they try to relate the anomaly to some known tradition. Second, if no tradition exists, they may proceed seemingly with no caution, again a fair description of the behavior of some Arab University students in the United States when encountering new temptations.

 



H. A De-Emphasis on Creativity

Like other collectivist cultures, such as that of Japan, Arab culture de-emphasizes creativity. If the group moves as a whole collective, then, logically, too much individuality becomes not only something of a waste of time, but also somewhat dangerous since it threatens to move the individual away from safer patterns of thought and behavior.

Another study (Soliman and Torrance, 1986) of Kuwait University students focused on right-brain and left-brain activities. Torrance and Soliman found that while men and women in Kuwait University differ from one another, they differ even more from Americans of either gender in their preference for right brain, practical, ordered, thinking over more fanciful, left-brain thinking. The authors find this no surprise (Soliman and Torrance, 1986):

These results are not surprising. In the Arab culture, there is an emphasis on conformity to family and adult standards and traditions. One’s behavior is usually judged as either right or wrong, and being wrong in one's behavior or views is criticized. Use of fantasy and playfulness is not considered a behavior of a mature person. A person who sets high standards for himself or works for competence and does not care for quick success is described as impractical, fanciful, and romantic....Respect for tradition is a prime value in the culture....In such a cultural context, creativity does not seem to be highly valued or encouraged. Therefore, right hemispheres may not be reinforced or developed. (p. 43)

Indeed, traditional Arab education emphasizes or reinforces (Khatab and Yair, 1995) many of the points above. Note that the authors of the following description, which covers both public and private schools, offer it without any real argument to support it as though everyone in the Arab world would agree (Khatab and Yair, 1995):

The Arab educational system had always been patriarchal, governed by an authoritarian school staff. The educational system was perceived as a route to social mobility and nation building. (p. 99)

Arab culture, then, tends to de-emphasize creativity in favor of following set patterns of proven success.



I. Face-Saving

Raphael Patai (1973) gives the concept of "face" considerable emphasis. As in the Far East, an Arab tries not to "lose face," suffer humiliation, which Patai distinguishes from "shame." For more on this contrast refer to Ruth Benedict's The Chrysanthemum and the Rose (1947) which explores this concept in Japan.

As in Asia, losing "face" involves more than feeling embarrassed. It entails doing something that hurts the group in which one finds membership. Hence, as mentioned above, brothers engage in honor-killings trying to save family honor, and thus Kuwait provides separate neighborhoods for divorced women, severing them from the eyes of a disapproving society.

It bears mention that face remains a public attribute, not a private one. Since the humiliation falls upon the group, through either notice or notification, something not noticed incurs no loss of face. Indeed, to some, it seems to imply that wrongdoing only exists as a social concept, not as a personal attribute. Here, Islam sometimes acts as a behavior modifier since all Muslims believe that God observes every action.

This belief can have two different effects. To some, God’s ever-present observation acts in the same manner as observation of society, and this moderates their behavior. They may appear as though they feel guilt when, in fact, they feel shame due to God’s observation of wrongdoing. Others, however, adopt the attitude that since God will judge everything later, they need not worry about it too much now. This helps explain the number of mistresses living in various places in Kuwait City and also the wild behavior sometimes exhibited by male Kuwaiti and Saudi students abroad. Basically, if no one saw it, or none who would report it, they pretend it did not happen.

Further, since humiliation comes from the outside, losing face occurs only when a wrong action comes to the attention of that outside group, not before. This explains why the Kuwaiti opposition enthusiastically backed the "grilling" (public examination) of an Islamist Cabinet member and yet voted against the grilling of Mohammed Al-Sager, one of their own. They wanted Mohammed to save face but felt no reason to do the same for someone outside their group. By the same token, girls swimming in their bathing suit at a public beach would cause shame to the group, but those same girls swimming at their private chalet bothers no one, no matter how many cousins drop by. In sum, the action itself doesn’t carry dishonor; rather the registered report of the action causes dishonor.



J. Speech Over Action

The Koran includes the phrase "Recite in the name of the Lord." This reflects a general preference among Arabs for speech, sometimes considering it as a substitute for action. To this factor, Patai (1973) attributes numerous Arab treaties of friendship and understanding, many of which do nothing.

This preference for words comes into play in various situations. Traveling in Egypt, this author witnessed numerous "Egyptian fights," in which two irate men yell at each other for five minutes, threaten each other, and do nothing.

This carries over into the school situation. Time and again, when students misbehave, they immediately say "I’m sorry," suggesting that somehow they believe saying this exactly negates the misdeed, as though words cancel action. Adults sometimes behave in the same manner. Several questions on the AWSIT and the AGS, in chapter thirteen, attempt to test this assertion.

This explains, in a way, the sometimes seemingly improbable statements and promises made by Arabs. In the sections above, it states that parents and other authorities emphasize the practical over the fanciful or creative. If one can substitute saying the right thing for doing the right thing, then doing right becomes infinitely easier since one can more easily say things than do them. Making a grandiose statement to a Westerner may seem impractical, but it certainly holds high practicality if its substitutes for difficult action.



K. Wastah

"Wastah" means "influence" and forms the logical corollary of tribalism. In a way, wastah binds together two different and apparently contradictory concepts: the hierarchical society and communitarianism.

At first glance, it appears that wastah resembles the American concept of "pull." In America, though, generally, one uses money to get pull, such as when a businessman gives money to a politician in order to get a law passed to help his business. Hence, money creates pull even if it ultimately makes more money as well.

In the Arab world, the opposite occurs: wastah creates money. The closer one relates to the center of the circle of the individual who holds power, the more "wastah" one holds with that person. In this respect, wastah always relates to a particular person, not as an abstract quantity. Hence, someone will say: "I have a lot of wastah with Abdullah," rather than "I have a lot of wastah." Indeed, if a person says, "I have a lot of wastah," it effectively means holding wastah with a large number of important individuals.

Wastah creates positive expectations. For example, a brother who enters a government office and sees his brother working there expects to get special treatment and go to the head of the line. Indeed, his brother would humiliate him by not going over to greet him immediately upon his entry into the office. Again, questions on the AWSIT and AGS in chapter thirteen specifically test the strength of this assertion.

Further, wastah introduces an element of competition in an otherwise static hierarchical social schema, and it bridges a logical contradiction between two of the values explained above:

(1) If everyone appears somewhere within a hierarchy, then no one can advance, except through age or marriage;
(2) Contrarily, if each person possesses his own circle of affiliations, one can rise, somewhat, in importance, by penetrating another person’s circle and building a stronger relationship, i.e., by becoming "less of a stranger."

Wastah bridges this contradiction because one can acquire wastah, unlike birth or gender. Indeed, people actively compete for wastah. Hence, an Egyptian who cements a business deal with an important Kuwaiti builds a relationship that he can exploit to achieve aims, which his position as an Egyptian would otherwise not allow. In effect, he uses the wastah of his Kuwaiti friend-employer. Hence, he can temporarily overcome the weaknesses of his own position within the hierarchy by cementing a personal relationship. Note, however, his wastah does not equal birth because it does not last and it depends upon another.

To give a very simple example, in Kuwait, one will often see a Kuwaiti taking his maid to a business office to help with some transaction, such as sending home money, a "remittance." His presence in the office dramatically cuts down on the time she spends in line because those in the business office treat him sooner than they would treat her. In effect, he temporarily loans his social position to her, but, of course, he remains under no obligation to help her.

However, despite the apparent element of social mobility, wastah competition and advancement, of course, take place within set boundaries. No matter what that Egyptian does, he remains an Egyptian, subject to having his property taken and residence card confiscated at a moment’s notice (Longva, 1997). Also, he enters into an unequal, temporary relationship. Further, some people simply start off with more wastah, inshallah, than others due to their birth, citizenship, etc..

Wastah pervades all Arab countries (Ali, 1991), and it contravenes the principles of rational bureaucracy (Weber, 1958) whereby one treats all applicants equally. In other words, in an organized bureaucracy, claimants expect professional treatment, not personal. Those with wastah expect exactly the opposite.



L. The Sheikocracy and the Weberian Bureau

Perhaps an effective means of contrasting Arab and Western worlds consists in contrasting two different models of organization, the sheikocracy and the bureaucracy. Note that they have many points in common:

To get to the heart of this distinction, before examining any particulars of the model above, requires looking at a central distinction: impersonal versus personal. Weber drew his model from the most vital and efficient institution in his state, the Prussian-dominated Germany Army, and one can think of it as an army gone into governmental work. To think of the army treating one private differently than another makes no real sense: each has a rank and purpose in relation to his or her assignment, not personally. Such a distinction underlies all principles of Western organizations, such as General Motors or IBM.

The sheikocracy, of course, functions in exactly the opposite manner. One can think of it as a family gone into business, not an army gone civilian. In this sense, the family relationships form the core and, indeed, the glue that holds the sheikocracy together. The family’s survival depends upon economic success, and hence, to describe a company such as Al-Shuaiba Mills or The Al-Sharifa Center in any other than personal terms loses a lot of the sense of the organization. Further, note that the few real giant corporations in the Arab world, such as Kuwait Oil Company, inevitably fall into the category of government-owned companies, not joint-stock companies.

Having said this, one can start to distinguish between these two organizations point by point. First, regarding "continuous organization," a government, an army, and even a corporation exists as a legal entity. Thus, it lives a life its own distinct from that of its "owners," whether taxpayers or shareholders. That explains why one cannot sue a company president for a bad product. In contrast, the family-owned businesses of Kuwait inevitably exist as a function and adjunct to the families who own them. They exist for and as an extension of the owning family.

The second point concerns the division of labor. On this point, generally both organizations agree. Different people do different tasks, with some managing and others getting managed. The important difference consists in that those at the management level of the sheikocracy often earn their position through family position.

The next two points fall together. In a bureaucracy, a bureaucrat holds authority over what he or she must accomplish but not unlimited authority. Hence, the president of Buick Division can choose to make a new model, but he cannot make general company policy, the job of the General Motors president and the stockholders. The sheikocracy, generally, follows the same principles with the caveat that, if a conflict occurs between the seeming position of an individual and influence draw by association, he may end up exceeding his nominal authority. Hence, an owner’s son assigned to work in a branch office can, in fact, wield more real influence than his supposed superior. In fact, a well-run sheikocracy typically works to keep these tendencies in check.

The next principle, hierarchy, sounds very military. A sound corporation possesses a "chain of command." The board commands the president, who commands the division manager, down to the supervisor who commands the line worker in the Buick plant. The sheikocracy also supports a chain of command, only at the top layers the authority and position come from authority and position within the family, not the corporation. Again, a well-run sheikocracy tries, whenever possible, to assign the most influential family members to the highest positions.

The next principle, technical competence, makes perfect sense. A well-run sheikocracy, of course, will follow the same principles. The important exception, of course, concerns the higher-level managers, but even in today’s corporations, most higher-level managers need competence in business management, not in computers.

The next principle lies at the heart of the contrast, the division between ownership and administration. Even in General Motors, the owners, the stockholders, while charged with approving the overall company direction, do not run the daily business of the company. Nor do the taxpayers give orders to the army in the field, though, of course, they can usually vote directly or indirectly on the decision to go to war. This division of ownership and management, of course, does not exist in the sheikocracy, and indeed a wise, owning family actively involves itself in running the family business.

The following principles lead back to the previous discussion of wastah. In a Western bureaucracy both within the bureau and its dealings with customers, the bureaucrat should deal with the case, not the person. That means, for example, that every customer ordering the same Buick model receives his car off the finish line in order of completion. Further, two employees performing poorly rate the same consequences regarding their pay or termination. The sheikocracy differs profoundly from this as every important decision factors in the identity of both whom it affects and who makes the decision. In Kuwait, in which nationalities rank differently, different nationalities get served in order of rank. Within a company, beyond the obvious difficulty in terminating a member of the family, the wastah of the worker with his superior may affect his treatment and, again, this may depend on nationality. A well-run sheikocracy tries to deal with this cause of possible inefficiency by placing individuals into jobs they can perform both in terms of skills and social position and by encouraging good performance as a means of showing loyalty.

The final point involves the contractual nature of a bureaucracy’s business. Again, this speaks to the impersonality of the organizational structure. Everyone within a bureaucracy works to clear and generally written goals, and the bureaucracy serves its customers in similar fashion. To sell the same car to two different customers for different prices or to pay one worker more than another for the same job goes against the concept of a Weberian bureaucracy.

In distinct contrast, while one might describe "contracts" within a sheikocracy, all of these contracts depend, to some degree, on personal relations between the contracting parties. For example, cousins of the company owner expect, and receive, better prices than total strangers. Further, a cousin of the owner will receive higher pay for doing the same job than his Egyptian co-worker, even if the Egyptian possesses superior credentials. This reality puts a premium on developing and maintaining personal relations, more even than one finds in a Japanese, Confucian bureaucracy. Indeed this principle extends into the governmental arena whereby through continuing personal relationships powerful sheikocracies secure government contracts.

Again, this does not mean that a bureaucracy cannot compete, and the best ones try to bring about high efficiency without sacrificing personal relationships. If the foregoing analysis suggests that family members necessarily form the "weak link" in the company, in fact, they may outperform their Western counterparts. After all, the company’s success builds their reputation. Further, the family often raises them to fill a certain position. If the president of General Motors owes his position to a Darwinian struggle to climb to the top, the president of the Al-Sharifa Center can often boast an entire lifetime of education at school and at home directed towards job preparation.



M. Conclusions

This section of the dissertation then has served to illustrate some of the key attributes of Arab culture. Kuwaiti culture, as an Arab culture, includes certain distinctive elements. Still it adheres to a communitarian, risk-avoiding, hierarchical, face-saving, traditional world view. Arabs hold a respect for elders and for those in authority, but respect and authority decrease as one moves further from the central circle of family. Formal structure of authority may or may not coincide with informal ones, and family remains the center of life. Wastah serves an important function as it allows for some amount of temporary social advancement in return for enhanced personal ties while maintaining the traditional hierarchy.

Kuwaiti culture exists at Al-Dharra Madressor School, to some degree, under the guidance and supervision of the Palestinians. Several studies found no important differences between Palestinians and Kuwaitis on any of the points above. The following chapter, then, will turn to the development of Kuwait and the sixth to the particular place of the Palestinians.





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