Seeing the “Downton Abbey” movie in 2019, I was reminded of the lives of my wealthiest and best-connected students in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. They live like royalty, they have many servants, formal dining times, some are equestrians, lovers of classical music. They are driven by chauffeurs or drive expensive cars Their social class structure is positively Victorian in expectations of polite manners, dress codes, female “purity” or virginity, paternalistic protections, a stoic honor code, awareness that there are fixed positions in life that nearly everyone is born into, and they were lucky enough to land at the top of the world’s heap. They think nothing of taking the whole family on month-long jaunts to Europe, Asia, America, or Australia, perhaps just to shop.
And like the characters of “Downton Abbey,” they wonder if their lifestyles are sustainable in the future.
As an American, I did not realize until I lived there how the modern Middle East was shaped in part by the British Empire. The Gulf States still maintain monarchies, aristocracies and social structures modeled after those in Europe, particularly Britain. Leaders of Middle Eastern countries are frequently educated at boarding schools in England. When Queen Elizabeth visited Abu Dhabi in 1979 and 2010, the red carpet was truly rolled out.
I could easily imagine some of my best Emirati students — writers and filmmakers — decades in the future producing a nostalgic period piece about the lives of their parents and friends similar to Downton Abbey. I could certainly imagine them agreeing with Lady Edith: “Our way of life is something strange, something people will queue up and buy tickets to see, like a museum exhibit, a fat lady in the circus.”
Until its founding in 1971, the United Arab Emirates were the Trucial States, which was the name given by the British government for its protectorates in southeastern Arabia. With the discovery of huge oil reserves in the 1950s, the Gulf States have experienced “rags to riches” economic miracles since the 1960s — from abject poverty to extreme wealth.
But three generations later, academic researchers have pinpointed concerns that easy wealth, lack of money management skills and financial savvy, and a cultural emphasis on ostentatious materialism is endangering citizens’ well-being.
- Downton Abbey Movie Takes Nostalgic View of Aristocratic England
- The modern Middle East was shaped partly by the British Empire.
- When Queen Elizabeth visited Abu Dhabi.
- Rising materialism a threat to life satisfaction, UAE study finds (2015). Zayed University researchers caution against conspicuous consumption.
- New measures needed to combat materialism in UAE, study finds. A rise in wealth — coupled with cultural expectations — is encouraging debt and family problems. (2019).
- UAE’s Unsustainable Nation-building. Yale University Global.