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Gulf city-states balance the old with a rush to the new

The author is temporarily in London after seven years in Beirut, during which she traveled throughout the Middle East and contributed to this newspaper.

It is a normally busy day, in a hotel bearing a famous international name, in one of the city-states on the east coast of the Arabian Peninsula.

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Lebanese and Egyptian receptionists deal calmly with incoming Western businessmen. Filipino waitresses serve pertly in the coffee shop; Korean carpenters hammer away at new furnishings. In the telex room, Indian operators sit over their clacking machines.

The decor throughout is modern, neutral -- Hotel International.

And who are these few white-robed figures gathered around a stairwell, sitting cross-legged on the plush sofas, staring defensively at the world?

They are citizens of this particular state, apprehensively trying to stake a claim to the vaunted fruits of "their own" oil riches. They are defiant as they hold their long herders' canes, a symbol of their belonging; unselfconscious as they hold aloft a favorite falcon on their wrists, incongruous link with a proud past.

In some peninsula city-states such as Kuwait, this stage of raw culture shock between old and new has long since passed. Kuwait has a successful history of 20 years of independence behind it; and even before that, the city supported a worldly wise community of international traders.

The Kuwaitis have adapted with seeming panache to a world of cruising Rolls Royces linked by radiotelephones, powerboats, lush and extensive villas spaced down mature tree-lined avenues, regular international calls to brokers in the world's major money markets: all the trappings of oil wealth.

Wily Kuwaiti administrators deploy funds set aside for the generations after the oil wells run dry. Government schools and institutes raise confident classes of skilled young Kuwaitis, who need not even travel to Europe for their luxuries, as much of Paris chic has already come to their vast air-conditioned shopping malls.

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Over it all rules the Sabah family, which for more than two centuries has held the balance here between the traders, and the Bedouin and seafarers they traditionally served. Kuwait Inc. seems to be doing right by its shareholders, who include all Kuwaiti citizens.

Here and in the other city-states, there is little of the problem of internal diversity and distance facing the Saudis. The city-state ruling families all have long experience in power, striking an instinctively tenacious path between the various internal and external influences on them. In Kuwait, this has led to the establishment, abrogation, and successful reintroduction of a National Assembly in recent years.

Further down the Gulf, full independence from Britain did not come till the early 1970s, and it was only in 1970 that a British-inspired palace coup brought Oman into the modern age. The societies and political systems of these states are correspondingly less developed -- with the exception of Bahrain, an early arrival in the oil business that boasts the most Westernized society in the region.

Social differences and traditional tribal rivalries between the eastern peninsula states linger on. But much more unites than divides them today, as they face the multiple challenges of the petrodollar era.

The greatest unifying factor is an over-whelming desire for the local stability that is a prerequisite for the continued flow of oil. Seldom have oil states seriously tried to upset the balance inside similarly endowed neighbors, in quite sensible fear of any retaliation. Despite the pervasive influence of geographical big brother Saudi Arabia, the general atmosphere is "live and let live."

A more recent unifying factor has been the shared awe at constituting the world market's largest contiguous oil source -- especially since the chaos in Iran and the Gulf war have highlighted this role.

Aware of their vulnerability to destabilizing currents from across the Gulf or down from Iraq, the six eastern peninsula states came tentatively together in February 1981 in the Gulf Cooperation Council.

The council could have all its work cut out just to fulfill such technical functions as minimizing the enormous duplication of development efforts among member-states. But in the context of regional and great-power rivalry for influence over the oil fields, its establishment signified an implicit political declaration of shared intent among member-states. And that intent is one of firm nonentanglement in great-power rivalries. (Kuwait is the only member-state with diplomatic links with the Soviets; all play host to a full array of Western envoys.)

But perhaps the greatest unifying factor among the states of the eastern peninsula today is a shared quest for a satisfactory internal balance between the old and the sudden arrival of the new. What, citizens of these societies are having to ask themselves seriously, are these societes for?m

The groups of Bedouins loitering in the luxury hotels see one aspect of the problem. Down in the vast factories of the newly designated industrial areas another is visible. Everywhere, it wears the same face: vast incoming waves of foreign labor.

In 1975, immigrant labor accounted for 84.8 percent of the work force in the Emirates, 81.1 percent in Qatar, and 43 percent in relatively populous Saudi Arabia. The proportions have certainly increased since then.

In the first years of the oil boom, these immigrants came mainly from egypt and northern Arab countries. They interacted with the "native" populations but did not basically dilute their Arab character.

But many Gulf rulers became disturbed at the prospect of these Arabs bringing with them the radical ideologies from back home, and at the relatively high cost of providing them with physical accommodation. The rulers turned increasingly to cheaper labor from the nearby Indian subcontinent, whom they did not have to treat with even a semblance of "Arab Solidarity." But the Indians, and the wives and children they managed to bring, have diluted the character of the Gulf societies. Dubai, in particular, seems almost an Indian city.

One solution Gulf rulers have sought is to bring in contract labor, which leaves with the completion of the project. East Asians predominate in this field.

Housed in work camps, even their food brought in from South Korea, Korean workers continue under arc-lights at night to build a new office complex in Kuwait or a whole city in Saudi Arabia. Maintenance of the completed projects is carried out on a similar basis: a whole army of uniformed Filipinos silently sweeps Kuwait airport's soaring new concrete terminal.

But is this a solution? Gulf nationals see whole foreign societies growing up on their national soil, at work on vast economic projects that -- especially in the case of manufacturing industries -- can seldom expect to compete internationally from the hostile climate of their harsh land. The resurgence of religious feeling all down the Gulf also militates against further marginal economic development, with all the social changes that brings.

"We should build just what we need here," says one Emirates nationa, "and that stage is nearly complete. Then we can invest the rest of our money elsewhere. Better to open factories for the Pakistani labor in Pakistan than here. Then maybe, with fewer foreigners around, we can sort out our own problems, and build a decent life for outselves here."

"And that," he added, "is not just a question of cash. Primarily, it's a question of establishing priorities. We have the good fortune of being the first societies in history not to be limited by economic strictures. Let's hope that, by seeking out the best in our traditions, we won't blow the chance! and -- with all respect -- that we're allowed to do things our way."

Next: the part of the Arabian Peninsula without oil: North and South Yemen.

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