ABU DHABI // Pakistan's recently appointed ambassador to the UAE has warned fellow expatriates to keep politics out of three community centres expected to reopen within two weeks. UAE authorities closed the centres in Abu Dhabi, Al Ain and Dubai more than 12 years ago, after they began holding illegal elections with rival leaders vying for power. "There will be no politics," said Khurshid Ahmed Junejo. "The centres are purely for recreational purposes? a place where people can exchange views and go to cultural events."
Mr Junejo is to meet community leaders in the next few days and will ask them to agree to conditions backed by the government and the embassy. "In future the centres should not have to be closed," said Mr Junejo. "In future there should not be mismanagement. We have to involve both community people and embassy people." Prominent members of the 850,000-strong community will be chosen to lead the agenda, he added. "In charge will be people from the community, not from the embassy," he said. "We will just be like a godfather. If we face problems we will intervene. The show will be run by the community and it will be autonomous."
Some expatriates, who grew tired of promises from the embassy that the centres would reopen, set up their own social networks. Although they welcomed the reopenings, they had some suggestions on how to update the centres to meet the needs of the community. Naheed Nafees, an adviser to the Pakistan Ladies Association Wing in Dubai, said they could provide a base for different functions. "There should be a party hall, we could hold parties," she said. "Five-star hotels are very expensive now and it is difficult to hold functions outside. We have to look for sponsors for funding, and it is not an easy task. It is more difficult now with the economy. If we had our own centres, we wouldn't have to beg."
She added that the embassy had not included the community in plans for the centres. "If they just told me what to do or let us do it, I would," she said. "But we don't get a response from them." She would like to see a sports facility, a children's group and, in line with Mr Junejo's requirements, no politics. Faisel Rehman, a store assistant from Abu Dhabi, was disillusioned with the time taken to restart the centres.
"I know many people are making an effort," he said, "but it might be that they are not working hard enough, or that they don't have resources. "Although it will not be allowed, voting would be a good way of choosing people to run the centres. It would be fair to get someone to lead the agenda and bring our cultural centres back to life." An Abu Dhabi-based housewife from Islamabad said the centres should concentrate on helping the thousands of labourers who have no place to socialise.
"There are these men without families here, they have no society," she said. "On a Friday, they have a day off and the whole of the city sees an influx of men so it makes my young daughters and families feel awkward to be around so many men. In Saudi they have separate malls for men. The social centres could provide them with a place to go, they could have 'men days' on a Friday, to play football and socialise."
Mustansar Shahzad, who has been living in Dubai for two years and works with the Pakistani Professional Wing, said the centres' interiors needed to be updated. "People can go and feel like part of the community then," said Mr Shahzad. "People only go to centres when there is an event. There is no regular get-together. In all community centres there should be a restaurant." Housewives, keen on making new friends while their husbands work, say the centres could address the often bewildering prospect of how to meet new people.
"Even though I am confident and will even go to say hello to someone in a coffee shop," said a young Pakistani housewife in Abu Dhabi, "I would still like to have a centre where I know everyone is keen on building new bridges." Another item on Mr Junejo's agenda is reforming the education system for Pakistani expatriates. Previously, the ambassador had said the standard of education available to Pakistanis was not adequate and the staffing system unreliable.
"I will take up this issue with community people, my own government and the UAE." He also reiterated the need for foreign investment in Pakistan. "There are four or five visible sectors in which one could invest, including coal, energy, mining and agriculture." he said. "Everybody talks about security, the problem which Pakistan is facing. I think sooner rather than later this will be overcome, probably in a couple of months. It will be easy for people to invest in Pakistan, it's quick. You get a return within three years. You won't get that anywhere else in the world."