The United Arab Emirates are celebrating their 39th national day this month. Trucial Oman, as it was then known, became independent from their semi-colonial relationship with Britain in December 1971 and the country has since experienced some dramatic changes: its population has increased more than 30-fold from 180,226 at the time of the 1968 census to 5,671,112 in 2009, and the country has grown fabulously rich on its oil exports, which began in 1969.
Sociolinguists have been paying surprisingly little attention to the UAE despite the fact that, along with other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, the UAE has been engaged in a language policy experiment of large-scale language shift from Arabic to English. Widespread language shift in these heartlands of the Arab world has been such that there is now an emerging concern for the long-term viability of Arabic in GCC countries (see also our earlier post “Where is the Arabic?”).
How is such as state of linguistic affairs possible one might ask? Gulf Arabs don’t fit the typical patterns of societal language shift, which is commonly associated with disenfranchised minorities, poverty, and oppression. The only researcher who, to the best of my knowledge, has attempted an answer to this conundrum is Sohail Karmani with his 2005 article “Petro-Linguistics.” There the author explores the nexus between an oil-based rentier society and the GCC countries’ burgeoning English language teaching industry. Karmani starts from the premise of the Arab Human Development Report that oil has been more of a bane than a boon for the region. The well-known paradox of the “resource curse” is based on the observation that countries with plentiful natural resources have often poorer development outcomes than those with less.
Despite the well-known economic and socio-political dangers of overreliance on the extraction of primary resources, the overreliance on oil revenues in GCC countries continues for three reasons: first, the rentier economy serves to buy political consensus; second, oil wealth has led to a capital-intensive mode of development instead of a labor-intensive one; and third, soaring international demand creates strong pressure to continue current high levels of extraction and the attendant rentier mode of social organization.
Karmani argues that these three reasons for the continued over-reliance on oil are directly related to language policy in GCC countries. To begin with, while the rentier state is conducive to political consensus it is not conducive to political participation in the way a tax-dependent state is. Consequently, state-society links in rentier states are usually weak and underdeveloped and state policies, including language policy, do not need to take the needs, desire or practices of the Arabic-speaking citizenry into account.
Second, a capital-intensive mode of development encourages reliance on huge numbers of advisors and international experts, who by the very nature of their backgrounds and expertise, not to mention self-interest, favor English. Finally, international demand and pressure for continued high levels of oil extraction also indirectly favor English through their support for the rentier mode rather than mass industrialization and mass education.
Consequently, Karmani compares the operation of the TESOL industry in GCC countries to the operations of an oil cartel: in this account, the TESOL industry largely controls language policy and, more crucially, language practices in education, and the profits of the enterprise flow back to Western English-speaking countries. Indeed, despite the huge investments into English that GCC countries have made over the past decades, there is also a consensus that overall levels of English proficiency in the region are low. This lack of “success” in English language learning is partly an in-built feature of language teaching in a context where language is a commodity, as I have argued previously with reference to the South Korean context (see here and here). However, it is also a feature of the modus operandi of a cartel:
[…] an increasingly assertive, self-serving mercenary culture had set in that relied largely for its survival on weak state-society linkages and on the stark absence of the kind of accountability and transparency […] (Karmani, 2005, p. 93)
In 2008, the UAE made Arabic their official language, a move that seems to fly in the face of the account above. However, simultaneously, English-medium instruction is expanding to ever more segments of public education. The rhetoric around Arabic as the language of identity and English as the language of modernization has pitched the proponents of both languages against each other in zealous rivalry. It seems to me that these language wars are nothing but distracters from the burning questions humanity is facing today. While the immense challenges of population explosion, environmental destruction, climate change, and extreme inequality confronting us today may have nothing much to do with language, the question remains how language policy can serve to undergird sustainable development and a more peaceful future.
Karmani, S. (2005). Petro-Linguistics: The Emerging Nexus Between Oil, English, and Islam Journal of Language, Identity & Education, 4 (2), 87-102 DOI: 10.1207/s15327701jlie0402_2