This summer, papers and magazines in London were full of stories and images of Arab millionaires flashing their wealth to the amusement (and sometimes astonishment) of the passers-by in the West End part of the British capital. Young royals and sons of oligarchs showing off their only-seen-in-magazines super cars, Arab young women walking around in luxury department stores like Harrods and Selfridges covered in diamond watches and jewellery, wearing the kind of fashion that would fit for a walking advertisement of luxury brands considering the amount of logos printed on every head scarf and handbag.
Westerners, who like everything understated and define elegance by simplicity, get a sense of shock when confronted by such sights and wonder why do Arabs like to show off!!!
To answer this question, we have to look at the issue from three different angles: cultural, religious and historical.
The more eastern you go in this world the more you notice the culture of showing-off. You don’t even have to leave Europe in order to get face to face with an ostentatious attitude towards luxury. Think of Italy… have you seen an Italian lately? They are also covered with brand names from head to toe… OK maybe Italians know how to be more presentable wearing brand names but this does not drop the fact that they like to show off. Spanish, Greeks, Russians, Turks all share this same cultural attitude. To be clearer, the trait of Not showing off exists only in France, Britain, Germany, Switzerland, Belgium and the Scandinavian countries.
But why do we only notice the Arabs? Simply, because there are more Arab tourists in London during the summer than all the other nationalities combined. Moreover, Arabs, regarding the amount of wealth they enjoy, can excessively drive the fastest cars, wear the biggest stones and stay in the most exclusive addresses of the city. But assume we give the same amount of wealth to one of the eastern cultured nations, do you really think that their nationals wouldn’t be even more showy than the Arabs? Heard of Onassis? Seen Berlusconi? Exactly!
There’s a verse in the Koran that if translated into English would mean: “And about the gift of your God you should talk”… or in other words, show what God has given you. This lead to the belief that it is bad, or even irreligious, to be wealthy and not show your wealth. Knowing that in the East, especially the Arab World, religion shapes the lifestyle, attitude, behaviour and social relationships, there would be no surprise to find people competing to show the gifts of their God, a competition that reflects itself on fashion, food, cars, houses, lifestyle etc…
The amazing thing in these societies is the way they look at understated people, the ones that are considered of good taste in the West for not showing off. They consider them misers!!! Arabs think that wealthy people who do not show their wealth have something to hide and such characters would be gossiped at in Arab societies. You cannot be rich and wear a Casio watch or drive a Ford Fiesta as people would think that you’re scared of something… maybe scared of the source of your wealth or even worse, people would think that you are a nouveau riche and don’t know how to spend your money.
Through history, Easterners in general and Arabs in particular had an attitude of extravagance and lavishness. If you look at Middle Ages Arab architecture you’ll find excessive opulence in the way buildings were decorated. Palaces of Arab Caliphs had mercury filled ponds where tiger skin pillows floated to lounge on for relaxation. Arab women used to wear pure gold belts encrusted with the rarest stones and garments made of the finest silk imported from India and China and sown using gold threads. Books were written in their thousands and sleeved in gazelle skin… even horses and camels used to be decorated with silver and gold chains. All this existed at the time when Europe was living its darkest ages and when Charlemagne was still learning how to write his name.
Come the industrial revolution which brought a new European age of wealth and better life for the industrialists but also misery and extreme poverty for the working class. Luxury in Europe was always accompanied by the sense that to be a gentleman or a lady you have to appear as someone who senses the suffering of the unprivileged majority. Everything lavish but not useful in a way of utility was considered bad taste and luxurious items were judged by their innovation. This was apparent in fashion were suits, hats and umbrellas replaced over decorated gowns and tiaras. This was happening in Europe while the East especially the Arab World was slipping into its own dark ages carrying with it the shells of a luxurious past and hanging on the memories of their successful ancestors.
Two different historical paths shaped the taste of two very different cultures but who’s right and who’s wrong? Well, who says that understated is good and ostentatious is bad? Who says that we should not show off? Who decides whether super cars should not be bought and driven around city blocks time and time again? Who?
In my opinion, the reason that London papers and magazines wrote articles about the showing off of Arabs was that Arabs were showing off in London!, a city were showing off is considered bad taste and something that provokes journalists to write about… but do you think that journalists in Dubai, for example, write about the showing off of their nationals? No, because in Dubai and other Arab cities, showing off is the norm and being understated is what surprises the public and shocks them.
You just have to listen to Arabs talking about the bad taste of westerners and you would know exactly what this argument is all about.