Traditional dress from the Gulf States, and its origins

by on June 22, 2013 at 3:33 am in Books, History | Permalink

This is from the latest book by Christopher M. Davidson, After the Sheikhs:

Another prominent mechanism for guarding and preserving the social base of national elites in the Gulf monarchies has been the adoption of a “national dress” code.  There are significant variations across the region, with men and women in Oman, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait wearing several different styles of garments, and with the younger generations in all six Gulf monarchies increasingly wearing western clothes during their leisure time.  For the most part the older generations in all these countries, and most citizens — young and old — in the wealthiest of the Gulf monarchies tend to wear a fairly strict uniform of white thobes or dishdashas (men) or black abayas (women).  Such quotidian sartorial choices allow the observer to differentiate instantly between a citizen and an expatriate, which helps the former to access the aforementioned privileges associated with citizenship and the concomitant elevated social status they bring.  In those monarchies such as Qatar or the UAE where the material rewards of citizenship are the greatest and where the expatriate component of the total resident population is the highest, adherence to the dress code is most prevalent.  As one recent study put it, “it is no mere fashion that leads all Qatar national men to wear their traditional thoh at all times…the emir and his government have perpetuated these neo-traditional myths of authenticity, allowing the creation of a citizen autocracy.”  Certainly it is very important to note that this dress code is primarily a product of the oil era and the rentier state: although sometimes referred to as “traditional dress” or even “Islamic dress” by foreigners, the current national dress code in these Gulf monarchies has few roots in tradition or religion, with early pre-oil photographs from the region demonstrating that the indigenous populations once wore a variety of colours and styles.

As for the book as a whole, I don’t think the author makes a convincing case for his extremely pessimistic forecasts, but still it is an interesting read.

x June 22, 2013 at 6:19 am

I want to live in a country where the dress code is being naked.

prior_approval June 22, 2013 at 7:04 am

Visit a typical German municipal mixed sauna – or even better, the Friedrichsbad in Baden-Baden, where clothing is forbidden for visitors.

Peter June 22, 2013 at 9:34 am

Always remember the Cardinal Rule of Public Nudity: those who do, shouldn’t.

prior_approval June 23, 2013 at 4:53 am

Well, maybe – except when everyone is naked in a public setting (with the generally understandable exception of the 13 to 18 year group, who tends to be extremely sensitive in this area, unlinke those a couple of years younger or old), you discover that naked people of all ages and shapes pretty much look like people.

In other words, would you write the same about people wearing bathing suits?

Ahmed June 22, 2013 at 6:52 am

As a jeans-wearing holdern of a GCC passport let me assure you, this is nothing but a conspiracy theory.

Sure, I’d agree that there are constructed narratives to ignite a sense of nationalism in gulf monarchies, but it’s difficult to argue that the thobe is one of them. Here’s why:

– Thobes (or dishdashas) are not exclusive to the “wealthiest of the Gulf monarchies”, in fact, the wealthiest citizens of Gulf monarchies are much more likely to be sporting expensive western brands and have been regulars at Harrods and other high-end department stores since the early days of the oil boom, why else would Qatar acquire both Velntino and Harrods?

– Thobes are worn by citizens of less economically-pribiliged countries in MENA (Morocco, Libya, Egypt, etc).

– Much like any other clothing item, thobes vary in price depending on many factors (design, materials, etc), and are worn by both the rich and the poor.

– Thobes came in different colors and remain to do so, yet the variation was never remarkable; light colors for summer (white, beige, and yellow-white), and dark colors for winter (black, brown, and gray).

– Thobes were (and remain) popular simply because of their convenience, especially when the average annual temprature is in the early 30’s (celsius).

– Though “neo-traditional myths of authenticity” are present in the Gulf (especially when it comes to music and poetry), clothing and thobes specifically are not part of these constructed myths; In large countries like Saudi Arabia thobes vary by region, and the fashion has experienced revamps by the region’s creative minds much like suits in the general west or Jean in working-class America. Lomar, a line of modern Saudi thobes is an examample of that: http://lomar.sa/.

Gorilla June 22, 2013 at 8:46 pm

Ahmed, I think you miss Tyler’s point a bit (I’m a white guy who lived in the GCC for 2 years).

Tyler points out that the reason for traditional dress is to differentiate between locals and foreigners, and not within classes (rich and poor) within the GCC. To take it further fair – aside from Saudi, there really isn’t a lower class in the GCC (my guess is that the average wealth of the bottom 10% of a Qatari is in the range of the top 10% of all Bangladeshi living in Qatar)

Even in Saudi where there is a substantial middle and lower class, the class structure is something like this:

1. Royalty/ wealthy class – all Saudi (Men only)
2. Royalty/ wealthy class – all Saudi (women)
3. All other Saudi men
4. All other Saudi women
5. Western expats
6. Poorer MENA country expats (Morocco, Egypt, Libya)
7. South Asian/ African expats

Point is – how you dress puts you very clearly in one of those buckets.

Ahmed June 23, 2013 at 2:54 am

Hello Gorilla, thanks for your reply :)

I wasn’t commenting on Tyler’s caption, I was commenting on Christopher Davidson’s writer (and this book in general). I agree that in their current state, the Gulf monarchies are unsustainable (both economically and politically), yet Davidson’s apocalyptic writing and connection of seemingly unrelated events that ARE unrelated, is just an easy way to sell pseudo-academic books on a subject that is attractive, yet largely unknown to most western readers. (On a side note: I recommend books such Toby Craig Jones’ ‘Desert Kingdom’ or Robert Vitalis’ ‘America’s Kingdom’ that tackle the subject more objectively).

“How you dress” will surely reflect your social status, but now what you dress like Davidson suggests. Thobes/Dishdasha’s do NOT reflect your social status nor are they a product of the oil era and the rentier state , as Davidson suggests.

Your guess about the non-existence of lower class in the GCC and the ranking you proposed, are also quite off; Saudi, Kuwait, Bahrain, and Oman have real inequality and class problems. Just take this recent photo-essay from AJE about marginalized citizens in Kuwait http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/inpictures/2013/06/201361417936140789.html , this photo-essay about poverty in Saudi http://lightbox.time.com/2013/05/23/rich-nation-poor-people-saudi-arabia-by-lynsey-addario/#1 , or this one about gross poverty in Bahrain http://digitaljournal.com/article/304361 .

However, you are correct: Qatar and the U.A.E are an exception, simply because their populations are extremely small in numbers when compared to their wealth. Qatar or the U.A.E today are very similar to Saudi and Kuwait in the 70’s.

Lastly, though unjust treatment of expats is present, it varies, significantly depending on their origin; Expats from countries that enjoyed colonial/old relations with the Gulf monarchies enjoy much better compensations than their counterparts from other countries. Where I work, we actually have different payrolls for Americans and Brits from those of Mexicans, Pakistanis, Filipinos, or South Asians—And this is for skilled-worker jobs. The situation for hard labor is much more grim across the board. Robert Vitalis’ book dwells deep on this matter, discussing how the racist concession terms that were brought by some western oil majors in the 50’s are still present to this day.

However, before we drift any further from the topic, the point was: there is no relation between excessive wealth and the “strict uniform of white thobes” nor is the adherence to this alleged dress code a guartnee for GCC-care benefits.
Yes, you can gain a lot by belonging to one of those monarchies (especially the richer ones), however, that is simply based on you having the passport or not. In fact, some of the most prominent beneficiaries of Gulf wealth (and many of them put it to good use) are actually from Palestinian and Lebanese decent, nationalized through providing services to the government.

John Brennan June 22, 2013 at 11:45 am

I thought this was going to be an article about Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and West Florida!

mulp June 22, 2013 at 3:54 pm

Metoo – this is about the Persian Gulf states, not the Gulf States.

Shane M June 23, 2013 at 3:58 am

Same here. I was thinking “traditional dress of Alabama and Mississippi?”

tt June 23, 2013 at 8:25 pm

overalls and a coon skin hat ?

Donald Pretari June 22, 2013 at 2:03 pm

My understanding is that the Traditional Headress for Men in Mecca was a Turban (Amamah), but that this is a tradition that has been lost.

Barkley Rosser June 24, 2013 at 9:30 am

I can attest that in at least some GCCs, the locals will become annoyed if a foreigner wears their supposed “national clothing.” There really are natoinal dress codes, and if one is a foreigner one is expected to dress as those from their nation are expected to dress. Locals can deviate from their own code more freely, if they choose to.

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