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If you are thinking to travel to the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain, or Oman, collectively known as the Gulf Cooperating Council (GCC), there are many books you can read about the history, culture, economy, and current events. However, there are also some great movies that can help introduce you to many aspects of the region. Tourists, educators, companies, and other interested in the GCC will benefit from these five great films.
The Message is the story of the prophet Muhammad and the birth of Islam. A must see to help you understand the religion and culture of the region. Additionally, knowing the names of the people in Muhammad’s circle (the Sahabah) can help you connect names of Muslims. You may have many colleagues in the Gulf named Ali, Abu Bakr, Hamza, Fatima, or Khadijah. Knowing the religious origins of their names would be a tremendous boost in your attempt to bond with the local culture. The Message is to the Middle East, as The Ten Commandments is to the U.S.
City of Life is like the Dubai version of Amores Perros or Crash. It provides a fascinating look at the cross-section of Dubai inhabitants–from two Emiratis, a Romanian flight attendant, and an Indian cab driver. Their dreams and nightmares converge into an unusual event. City of Life was written and directed by an Emirati and shot in Dubai, so you can catch a glimpse of a few physical and cultural aspects of the city.
I tried to stay away from war films (especially ones that deal with an outsider leading the “poor, downtrodden, native people” paradigm) but this one is a gem. The British government during WWI set out T.E. Lawrence; aka Lawrence of Arabia, to lead Arab revolts against the Ottoman Turks to help undermine the Ottoman’s war effort. What I find amusing about the film is the cultural journey Lawrence takes while trying to immerse into the Bedouin Arab culture. At the start of the movie, Lawrence’s Orientalist thinking leads him to believe that he knows “these people”; a sentiment that is too easy to fall for while visiting or living in the Middle East. During the movie, Lawrence had to temper his preconceived notions to listen, observe, and humble himself to truly earn respect from his hosts and understand the culture. His cultural journey is a good example to follow.
Wadjda is a marvelous film that has female empowerment written all over it. Firstly, Haifaa al-Mansour wrote and directed the film. She is the first by a Saudi woman to produce a feature film and she had to shoot some scenes from a van to comply with the country’s laws. Be on the lookout for this cinematic wonder.
Wadjda’s central character, Wadjda, is a vivacious, shrewd, and keenly observant young girl who is driven to achieve her goal of a beautiful 10-speed bike. To get to achieve this, Wadjda hustles for money here and there and enters a competition to try to win a coveted monetary prize. Her brilliant actions, resilient spirit, and quick-witted personality embody a hungry entrepreneur (in the making).
Furthermore, the film delves into other sensitive cultural issues that are unique to Saudi Arabia (the movie’s setting) but many elements of the film’s story help to elucidate a few cultural understandings of the region–e.g. women struggling to have their voice heard.
There are no Arab voice actors in this animated film., nor does it take place in the Middle East. With that stated, this movie is a textbook example of what the economic situation for the GCC (Gulf Cooperating Countries). “Cloudy” takes place on a fictitious island where their boom days of selling sardines are long gone. The island is now in a deep economic rut and is searching for ways to successfully evolve from its mono-resource fate. The movie’s unlikely hero, Flint Lockwood, hopes that his innovative creation can bring the island back from the economic dead.
This movie is an uncanny parallel to what the oil-dependent economies in the GCC need to do. Market diversification is vital to the survival of the region and creating innovation-based economies will help the district avoid being a textbook example of the ills of having single-resource economies. Showing this film to my high school students helped them understand the UAE government’s 2030 Vision Plan to invest in human capital (them) to spark innovative industries in the country. Additionally, the film helped them understand the values of resilience and creative thinking and being comfortable with failing to achieve success.
If you want to grasp a good economic understanding of what the GCC is trying to reach, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs is a clever metaphor that will give you a better glimpse.