Nowadays, the impact of economic factors is overwhelming. Even culture cannot withstand its influence, and this tendency is observed all around the world. It seems especially relevant to Arab countries because their current and past lifestyles are entirely different. Moreover, the transition was not voluntary but was associated with a dominance of economic over traditional cultural values. The novel Cities of Salt (1987) by Abdul R. Munif presents a unique description and examination of this transition and risks associated with this process. It seems that this novel positions itself as a social and cultural critique because it compares several forms of social and economic organization and shows that “westernization” is not as positive as it is generally assumed.
Arab countries are characterized by their unique culture and worldview. Although they are very different from the western nations, they served the interests of the local population in the best possible way. However, the discovery of oil has changed the situation entirely. Additional economic interests emerged. The author shows that foreigners began changing the traditional state of affairs: “The Americans told them that the dismissal of the workers was a strictly “routine” measure … there was no special significance to it” (Munif, 1987, p. 584). Although it caused some opposition among the local population, the expected financial benefits were as substantial as they were able to corrupt a fraction of people.
As a result, the interests of those people who desired to maintain their previous lifestyle were completely neglected. Some people had to leave their homes in order to enable oil production. The social situation has completely changed. Although a number of new rich cities emerged, the author explains that it is necessary to analyze these changes further. Moreover, it should be also noted that material wealth is not the indicator of happiness, especially in Arab countries. The main problem is that these new cities and the entire social system are not sustainable. They exist only due to the existence of oil and corresponding financial interests. In the absence of oil, the entire system will cease to exist.
Therefore, the author does not consider these changes to be positive or desirable for Arab countries. Their sustainable and cultural development is substituted for short-term economic gains based on the oil production. The author successfully supports his interpretation of events concentrating on the lives of ordinary people. The examples of unprecedented violence became usual for Arab countries. Moreover, the rights of Arab workers were not recognized. Any of their attempts to enjoy at least basic liberties resulted in new acts of violence. As a result, this “progress” was achieved due to the high level of exploitation and discrimination of some fractions of the Arab population.
The segregation of the camps also shows that the rights and interests of Arab people were not respected. The exploitative forms of production were established for obtaining the maximum amount of short-term gains from the oil production. It seems that Munif disapproves and criticizes such changes and social dynamics. His approach is correct because the only way to make reasonable and well-grounded conclusions is to evaluate the impact of social transformation on all members of society. No discrimination or violence can justify any increase in aggregate wealth. Happiness of different people cannot be compared, and any aggregations cannot allow establishing the just social system.
Munif’s conclusions and analysis seem to be very close to those of Dostoyevsky in The Brothers Karamazov (2002). Both authors show that the modernization of their countries is much more complex than it is generally recognized. This modernization can be observed not only in an economic sphere but a cultural one. Both authors believe that the introduction of these new elements is negative for traditional national values. The overall cultural standards tend to decline, and authors demonstrate those areas that prove their position.
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Although Munif does not explicitly refer to any specific country or historical period, it is clear that he analyzes the situation in Saudi Arabia in the second half of the 20th century. This social and cultural analysis is highly relevant not only for Arab countries but the rest of the world, as well. All countries and individual should respect the existing diversity of mankind. All people have different interests and preferences, and it is incorrect to evaluate the lifestyle of some nations from the perspective of others. Although the traditional values of Arab countries seem to be strange and irrational for Western people, they are the adequate representation of their internal world.
Another problem is the evaluation of future prospects of Arab countries. The traditional Western appraisement is such that Arab countries will enjoy much more opportunities under the new system. Therefore, their standards of living and overall happiness will increase. They evaluate all these changes as highly positive for Arab people. However, Munif addresses this issue from several micro perspectives and demonstrates that the lives of numerous people have not improved. This analysis may also be extended to the future. As this new development is unsustainable, the entire Arab civilization experiences substantial threats.
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The author believes that it is impossible to restore the traditional Arab worldview. The production of oil has strongly changed the entire situation. The only new criterion of success is profits. If some measures lead to higher revenues, people will pursue them. They are not interested in the rights of others. On the contrary, they are ready to violate these rights if it is beneficial from an economic point of view. This situation is very different from a traditional pattern typical for Arab people. Munif suggests that these changes cannot be reversed, and they have fundamentally changed the essence of human interactions. If people use monetary units as the standard of happiness they will not be able to abandon these principles in the future. These changes in people’s understanding of reality cannot be neutralized by any institutional or social reforms.
Arab countries may face additional difficulties in the future because oil and other resources are not unlimited. Any country cannot reach a sustainable development if it relies exclusively on some natural resources. The main factor that may allow reaching the desirable results is the national culture. It supports the entire population even during the most difficult periods of history. As modern Arab countries abandoned their traditional worldview, they would not have any spiritual support during future crises. Moreover, the Arab population tends to become highly segregated. Some people believe that their success if possible only due to the exploitation of others. Consequently, the area for mutually beneficial cooperation tends to decline significantly.
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It may be concluded that Munif’s novel should be considered as an example of social and cultural critique. The author effectively compares two cultures and lifestyles. He also explains the foundational economic reasons for the observed transformation. His overall evaluation of this process is highly negative as he recognizes the presence of a large number of risks and threats. Therefore, he tries to affect the readers’ perception of this situation as well as prevent the occurrence of similar situations in the future. It seems that this novel is even more relevant for people in the 21st century as it shows that societies that exist only due to their short-term economic interests are unsustainable.