An unavoidable question I encountered upon my return to the UAE from the West as a teenager was: “Where are you from?”
The frequency with which I was immediately asked about my origin was surprising, as it had been a query rarely raised in the US.
Understanding the source of the inquiry was in large part due to the population of the Emirates being more diverse than that of California, I initially tolerated the inquiry.
But eventually I grew tired of the idea of being boxed and labelled by my race and welcomed the return to the US where the pigeonholing subsided.
On the surface, race seemed to matter little in people’s judgement of an individual in the western state, with a person being judged primarily by their character. Background seemed a non-factor in this seemingly non-racist society.
Even though I eventually learnt, through first and second-hand experiences, that discrimination did exist, I realised it was kept under wraps and surfaced on rare occasions. Society’s disdain for racism in that part of the country kept even the most bigoted individual silent.
Here in the even more diverse Emirates, I have found race an even more pressing issue.
It is true that the UAE has become, in many ways, a model multicultural nation, where people of varied races and religions live in a peaceful and prosperous environment. Very few countries in the region, or in the world, can offer the safety, harmony and opportunity the Emirates provide for people of so many different backgrounds.
But after a few more months of observations and conversations, I witnessed open discrimination frequently, with those perpetuating the intolerance not shy about it all. More than a few blatantly told me of their dislike of one kind of people or another, citing different looks, behaviour, beliefs and even body odour as justification.
There was no race or ethnicity innocent of this inexcusable behaviour.
South and East Asians, Arabs, Europeans and Africans were all victimisers as well as victims of this narrow-mindedness.
You would think a nation that exposes its inhabitants to a diverse collection of races should result in its residents being more open-minded and understanding – which is true of much of the UAE’s populace.
But, unfortunately, these conditions have caused too many in the Emirates to develop discriminatory attitudes toward particular races and grow more intolerant.
As a country, the UAE has begun to make strides to battle the issue of racism within its borders by inviting and hosting a UN special rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance in 2009 as well as announcing a bid for membership of the UN Human Rights Council earlier this year.
If the multicultural society of the UAE is to continue its unprecedented path of development and prosperity, its residents and institutions need to rid the nation of the scourge of open and accepted racism.
Thamer Al Subaihi is a reporter for The National