Presented with a version of Botticelli's "Birth of Venus" that teachers thought prudent to censor from the neck down, the students and governing board at Qatar's new Shaqab College of Design Arts responded with a shared request: Show the rest of her. Although Islam discourages depiction of the human body, with nudes particularly off limits in this ultra-traditional region, they felt a country trying to open its economy and culture to the rest of the world required a bolder approach.
"It will be a challenge to open and also keep the basics," said Hend Maagan, one of the design school students who neatly summed up an evolution increasingly apparent in the monarchies and emirates of the Persian Gulf.
Unthinkable five years ago under a former emir known for aversion to change, the arrival of nude artwork in the classrooms of Doha is neither an isolated example of intellectual freedom in Qatar nor an anomaly on the Arabian peninsula. From expanding work opportunities and political rights for women, to increasing media openness and a drive for more liberal trade and investment policies, the region's strict social codes are, line by line, being rewritten faster than ever before.
It is a process long underway, but it has been accelerated in recent years by a number of forces--including the arrival of tens of thousands of foreign troops during the 1991 Persian Gulf War whose presence helped Gulf societies recognize that they could not isolate themselves forever. Since then, Western television, movies and other media have penetrated the area ever more deeply, while a period of low oil prices has highlighted the need for Gulf countries to open and diversify their economies. Perhaps as significantly, a younger generation of Gulf elites, often well traveled and educated in Europe and North America, has assumed a larger role in bureaucracies and businesses built by their more cautious elders.
For the United States and other Western nations, the trend promises a door open wider to investment and influence in the oil-rich heartland of Islam. But there have been repercussions, ranging from mild opposition among social traditionalists and religious conservatives to the harsh, anti-Western activism of such figures as Osama bin Laden, who feel the presence of U.S. troops runs counter to Muslim interests. The 1996 bombings of buildings housing U.S. service personnel in Riyadh and Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, were violent expressions of that sentiment.
Physically, the Gulf societies left tradition behind long ago, when petrodollars began flowing in earnest, particularly in the 1970s. A building boom laced the region with well-paved roads, replaced mud huts and Bedouin tents with concrete apartments and modern villas and tempered a furnace-like climate with air conditioning. Most of the area, from the Iraqi border in the north to the tip of the peninsula in the Arabian Sea, is uninhabited desert, but its cities have embraced modernity, with dabs of adventuresome architecture and liberal doses of public sculpture.
Social and religious traditions have proved more durable than infrastructure, but it is evident in myriad small ways that those standards, too, are starting to take on a different hue.
In Qatar's Foreign Ministry, the first female employees are staffing research and Internet departments, although the agency installed a separate doorway and a screen to keep separate the women their from male colleagues. With curious fathers and brothers inquiring about working conditions, the office director also agreed to hold staff meetings via video conference to further guard against intermingling.
Yet, the tradition has been breached. During an interview, three of the new women said their jobs are just a first step. They envision Qatar eventually appointing women ambassadors. Asked how that squares with the need for women to minimize contact with men outside the family, they began trying to quantify the limits their upbringing allowed. One said contact with men 20 percent of the time was acceptable, a bid quickly raised to 50 percent by another.
"Not every woman and man sitting together is a sin," said Abeer Kuwari, a female technician who helps maintain the ministry's Web site. "Education brings so many changes to people's minds."
Kuwait, traditionally a more liberal country to Qatar's north, has become so comfortable with its tens of thousands of Filipino Catholics and other Christian workers that it is possible to stroll through the newly opened Sultan Center--a mall with Starbucks and all--and shop to the strains of gospel music piped through the intercom.
At the southwestern tip of the peninsula, although outside the Gulf region proper, Yemen is developing democratic institutions, including direct elections for president, that the country's leaders say they hope will serve as a model for the entire Middle East.
Compared with the political changes that spread through Eastern Europe, or the economic changes that reshaped Southeast Asia, what is underway in the Gulf is hardly revolutionary. Inspired by an inherently conservative desert tribal culture, as well as a socially strict strain of Sunni Islam, countries such as Saudi Arabia maintain a rigorous separation between the sexes. Women cannot drive, for example. In much of the region, marriage to outsiders is frowned upon and, in some cases, legally regulated. Political power and control over the area's oil wealth remains mostly in the hands of a few royal families.
But neither is the region as static as its image sometimes suggests. Home life may be closely guarded as a bastion of social and religious custom, for example, yet more and more frequently that home is hooked to a satellite dish that pulls MTV, European movies and ads for telephone sex into the inner sanctum. The Internet is following apace.
Politically, this year alone brought a decree by Kuwait's emir giving women the right to vote and run for parliament, and a decision by Saudi Arabia to let women watch the proceedings of the monarchy's all-male advisory council.
And it is a Gulf-based satellite news channel, Qatar's Al Jazeera, that has come to set the standard for electronic media coverage in the Arab world over the last several years. In a region where television news often sounds like an inventory of official journeys and proclamations, Al Jazeera has delved into issues such as polygamy and freedom of speech and provided an outlet for dissident groups to air their complaints.
Qatar's Gulf neighbors have objected frequently to that level of freedom. Protests have been raised by Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, and Algeria's rulers at one point got so incensed by Al Jazeera's reporting that they shut down its bureau there. But the coverage also irritates countries like Egypt and Jordan that like to consider themselves more progressive.
In spite of this--or maybe because of it--Al Jazeera also has become the medium that Arab officialdom uses to send signals around the region.
"We are the only station that doesn't give a damn," said an Al Jazeera journalist. "It is the only station that is not controlled totally by a government. We don't have to think about what someone is going to say."
In the case of Al Jazeera, it is easy to isolate cause and effect. When the current Qatari emir, Sheik Hamad Bin Khalifa Thani, replaced his aging and conservative father in a bloodless coup d'etat five years ago, he moved immediately to show how quickly change can come. He sanctioned elections for a new municipal council, ordered creation of a constitution and moved forward on natural gas deals that had languished for 20 years. He inaugurated a trade relationship with Israel and signed a defense pact with the United States, while his wife embarked on a mission to upgrade education--a project that produced the design school as a way to expand job opportunities for women.
Backing the creation of Al Jazeera when the British Broadcasting Corporation's Arabic service closed following a dispute with the Saudis, was "a way to put Qatar on the map" and advertise the values Khalifa feels should take root in the Middle East, said one Qatari official.
Other connections are more subtle. As populations grew and the price of oil dropped during the 1990s, Gulf leaders realized cradle-to-grave housing, education, health and job benefits extended to their peoples in earlier decades could not be sustained. The need to diversify economically has the region reexamining its trade and education policies, looking for ways to increase foreign investment and ensure that public schools spend more time on academic basics and, by implication, less on religious studies.
In Saudi Arabia--the region's most insular state and, partly because the sacred Muslim sites in Mecca and Medina lie on its soil, the most cautious about change--there is even talk about expanding tourism to boost the economy.
"We should build enclaves, let tourists do what they want, away from the public eye," said Abdullah Dabbagh, a member of the Saudi kingdom's advisory council and an adviser to the national chamber of commerce. "At night, you could take them out, conservatively dressed, to shop around."
"We are changing habits," said Prince Bandar bin Khalid, secretary general of a philanthropy that is building an apartment and office tower complex in Riyadh, equipping it with a high-tech entertainment center, and, in a switch from Saudi mores, planning to keep it open through the five daily prayer times.
"Every country is different. Saudi Arabia has its own culture, and there are limits," he said, but added that "things change everywhere. . . . Once people accept it, it becomes the norm."
In some ways, however, popular acceptance has lagged behind official policy. The Kuwaiti emir's decision on women's suffrage still faces a potentially divisive parliamentary debate and women candidates in Qatar's first municipal council elections found little support among women themselves. All of them lost, and one candidate said she was told bluntly by other women that they would not vote for her because she did not wear the traditional veil.
And in contrast to Al Jazeera's bold regional presence, the local media in Doha are still feeling their way.
It is possible, for example, to read surprisingly open coverage of a court trial involving suspects in an attempted coup against the emir, or see the name in print of a local businessman accused of philandering with minors in southeast Asia. But editors at one local paper say it is also common for such frankness to meet community opposition, and sometimes stories are toned down as a result.
"The government does not interfere. We have a problem with the society itself," said Abulaziz Almahmoud, editor of the Peninsula, an English language daily created to serve the country's large population of expatriate Asian laborers.
"It is still a tribal society--large families, strong ties--and if you criticize, you will have so many people interfering. It takes time for people to understand democracy and criticism."