Gulf Arabs and East Asians
Remarks to a Seminar convened by the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington
Ambassador Chas W. Freeman, Jr. (USFS, Ret.)
Senior Fellow, Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs, Brown University
February 28, 2018, Washington, D.C.
In July 751, Tang Dynasty troops led by the famous Korean general Gao Xianzhi [高仙芝] suffered a decisive defeat by an Abbasid army in the battle of Talas River [معركة نهر طلاس ]. Most of the combatants on both sides were Turks but a few Chinese were taken prisoner. It is said that this is how papermaking and other Chinese technologies found their way to the Arabs and thence to the West. One prisoner of war (POW), Dú Huán [杜环 ], made it back to Guangzhou by sea in 762 and wrote a detailed description of Abbasid society as he had observed it. His book has been lost but portions of it are included in the Tongdian [通典 ], a massive encyclopedia compiled by his brother from 766 – 801.
Dú Huán noted that, while the Arabs were now in charge, they had previously been subordinate to the Persians. He reported that, despite this history, in Khorasan, Arabs and Persians lived together in mixed communities. He went on to write that “[Arab] men have high noses, are dark, and bearded. The women are very fair and when they go out they veil the face. Five times daily they worship God. They wear silver girdles, with silver knives suspended. They do not drink wine, nor use music. Their place of worship will accommodate several hundreds of people. Every seventh day the Caliph sits on high, and speaks to those below saying, ‘ Those who are killed by the enemy will be born in heaven above; those who slay the enemy will receive happiness.’ Therefore [the Arabs] are usually valiant fighters. Their land is sandy and stony, not fit for cultivation….”
Dú added: “Al Kufa [الكوفة] is … their capital. … Its men and women are attractive in appearance and large in stature. Their clothing is handsome, and their carriage and demeanor leisurely and lovely. When women go outdoors, they always cover their faces, regardless of whether they are noble or base. They … don’t eat the meat of pigs, dogs, donkeys and horses.”
By marked contrast with China, where both the emperor and parents were revered and where religious practices relaxed, Dú observes that Arabs “don’t respect the king of the country, nor their parents. … According to their customs every seventh day is a holiday, on which no trade and no cash transactions are done….” He goes on to note that “when [Arabs] drink alcohol, they behave in a ridiculous and undisciplined way for the whole day.
Twelve and a half centuries have passed but a few things haven’t changed. Cultural differences between East and West Asians remain significant. The Koreans are still part of the interaction between them. Notwithstanding the alleged hadith advising everyone to “seek knowledge even as far away as China” [اطلبوا العلم ولو في الصين], the Chinese have put more effort into studying the Arabs and Persians than either have put into studying the Chinese. Mohammed ibn Battuta [محمد ابن بطوطة] has been translated into Chinese. Dú Huán has not been translated into Arabic. The technology flow is still almost entirely from the East to the West.
But interactions between the Gulf Arabs and East Asians — not just Chinese, but Japanese, Koreans, Filipinos, Indonesians, Malaysians, and Thai — are intensifying. The relationships are driven by more than the fact that Chinese like to make things and Arabs like to buy things. They represent the high-volume exchange of oil and gas for goods and services but they also signal geopolitical change.
These interactions are taking place as both Western dominance of world affairs and American global hegemony fade. World powers can influence but no longer control what happens in the world’s regions. Instead, strong regional powers are emerging to exercise global influence and to reach out to other regions. We are witnessing the birth of a multipolar world
It is in this context that the Gulf Arabs are developing comprehensive, mature relations with East Asians. The ties between the two regions include all normal aspects of trade, investment, construction services, technology transfer, tourism, and cultural exchange. As East Asians produce more sophisticated weapons systems, the arms trade is becoming part of this. West Asia’s evolving interactions with East Asia are an important element in the shifting balances of global and regional power. To now, these have reflected the Arab interest in diversifying dependence on great powers more than they have a Chinese fascination with the Gulf. But that may not be the case in the future
I commend the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington for convening this discussion and thank President Marcelle Wahba for including me in it. I look forward to hearing from the other participants and to an active exchange of views with them.