In January 2023, I visited a country in the Middle East. It has been a while since I got so excited about a trip because it was my first time to that area of the planet. The region, particularly the Gulf States, has recently been in the world spotlight as the host of significant events such as the Dubai Expo 2020 and the Qatar Men´s World Cup 2022.
Going to the region felt like my first trip to Asia-Pacific 31 years ago. Back then, most of Southeast Asia was developing rapidly and was attracting the world´s attention as the so-called Asian Tigers or NICs (New Industrialized Economies, referring to South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Singapore). At that time, constructions were everywhere, and some innovative schemes were being developed in the region. APEC was the hottest informal multilateral organization. Besides, China was not yet the global power it is today, as it was still working on its economic reforms but was catching up fast.
It is interesting that some regions get attention at a certain point. Japan was the talk of the town in the late 1980s, as they bought many U.S. companies. For Latin America, its moment happened back in the 1960s, when the region was growing fast. Mexico was called one of Latin America's miracles and even hosted the Olympic Games (1968) and the Men´s Soccer World Cup (1970) back-to-back. Sadly, today, Latin America is losing ground on the world stage.
Humans like to build things, which is a perfect way to show off. Just look at Egypt’s pyramids or New York´s Empire State skyscraper so the world notices when countries erect attention-grabbing buildings. In the late 1990s, Malaysia finished the Petronas Twin Towers, the tallest building in the world back then, which was later overpassed by the Taipei 101 building. In recent years, the Gulf States have been catching up, developing massive infrastructure projects and impressive buildings such as the Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world today. Some of the region´s airlines are now trendsetters, just like Asian carriers two decades ago.
You know when a region has become fashionable when you start to see locally produced shows on TV and streaming platforms. One example is Netflix´s Dubai Bling. I think this is a good thing because people worldwide, particularly from the Global South, can see a homegrown perspective rather than a Western one. This has been a problem for Mexico for the longest time, as we typically are known from what Hollywood movies show or U.S. media networks. Read more about Mexico´s image abroad in the blog post titled Broken funhouse mirror: Mexico´s image and reputation abroad.
For many people around the globe, the Islamic world is mostly unknown, and the few things we know about it come from Western sources. For example, in history classes, we all learned how Europe contained the Muslim invasion during the Middle Ages and that later, they took over the whole region, especially after the disappearance of the Ottoman Empire. We also know that they had great mathematical thinkers, such as Muhammad ibn Musa Al-Khwarizmi, who were the basis of today´s computer systems. In my house, Las mil y una noches stories (Arabian Nights in English) were very popular when we were growing up. But that was it, besides the constant appearances of the region in the news, usually referring to violence, political and economic strive, and geopolitical competition.
In Mexico, the Muslim population is minimal, so there are few opportunities to meet them and learn directly from them about their vibrant culture. In my case, it was not until I studied for a master's degree in Southeast Asia that I met very good friends from the Middle East. Later, I lived in Malaysia, where I always enjoyed the call to pray from my apartment´s nearby Mosque. While studying for my GMAP master´s degree, we analyzed the region thoroughly, as the U.S. was in the midst of the consequences of the 2003 Iraq invasion, and security issues were paramount.
I enjoyed visiting a part of the Middle East, learning about the region’s history, meeting amazing people, and eating scrumptious dishes. I had the opportunity to visit an exemplary museum showcasing human art's history from a broad perspective. Most of its contents are not paintings, as in most Western museums, but plenty of figurines, masks, jewelry, and marble, rock, and bronze sculptures. It was eye-opening to see that the history of human civilizations does not start with the Greeks. The Middle East has some of the oldest art pieces in the world. Including works from China and India expose a much broader vision of the development of art worldwide. This is one of the goals of the Global South movement in International Relations.
While there, Twitter, now X, suggested Bayt Al Fann´s account showcasing Islamic art and culture. Just look at it to experience some fantastic works of art that most do not know existed. What a different perspective from most of the daily news and images about the region we see in the media!
Traveling allows you to experience places without any filters; thus, if you want to learn more about the world today, I encourage you to travel, even to your neighboring town.
DISCLAIMER: All views expressed on this blog are that of the author and do not represent the opinions of any other authority, agency, organization, employer or company.
Rodrigo Márquez Lartigue
Diplomat interested in the development of Consular and Public Diplomacies.