ABU DHABI // Marie Claire's three children sometimes come home from their multicultural private school in Abu Dhabi complaining that Emirati children do not interact with them.
The Dutch-British mother is trying to find an explanation. "Why are Emirati children not mixing?" she asks. "What kind of programmes or integration can we introduce to help schools bridge the gap?"
Shamsa Al Muhairi, an Emirati mother of four with two daughters who go to school with expatriates, says: "My children do not like mixing with non-Emirati children. I do not know the reason."
The self-segregation that begins in school extends into stereotypes and misunderstandings in adulthood. One Emirati woman finds that expatriates believe all UAE nationals have oil wells behind their homes, and some Emiratis believe expatriates are immodest people who want to invade their country.
Habib Khondker, professor of humanities and social sciences at Zayed University, says "the construction of other" – a belief that you know about another culture when in fact you do not – comes into play, creating a barrier to interaction between people from different upbringings.
"Stereotypes will not disappear in a day but they can be broken easily," Dr Khondker says. "Ignorance is the mother of stereotypes. One needs to prove oneself to overcome these misconceptions."
Fawzya Al Muhairi, Shamsa's sister, sends her children to private school specifically so they can interact with expatriate children, and because "private schools have better discipline than the public".
"As a mother, I taught my children right from wrong," she says. "I mix with westerners and my children like mixing with English children because I believe they are more transparent and disciplined compared with some Arab children who are raised by their maids."
At times, it seems as if there is a cultural impasse. Some expatriates have the misconception that Emiratis are self-important and prefer mixing only with their compatriots.
Zainab Al Junaibi, a Zayed University student, says some families do not like their daughters mixing with non-Emiratis because "our norms and tradition differ from theirs".
She, however, has no problem interacting with people from different cultures, and has many non-Emirati friends.
The workplace also makes it tricky for people to interact. Many Emiratis work in the public sector where expatriates are a minority, Dr Khondker says. Therefore, interaction must take place in public.
"If I was one of the policymakers, I would say to organise more public events such as festivals."
He said Emiratis should get more involved in the private sector so expatriates can get a better sense of the diversity of Emiratis.
Faizan Qureshi, from Pakistan, has lived in the UAE for two years and has never had an Emirati friend. "There is this feeling that Emiratis only befriend Emiratis or other Arabs. I would love to have Emirati friends," he says.
Mr Qureshi believes social media can bridge the gap, as he has got to know a few Emiratis via Twitter. He echoed the idea of organising public events.
"There is a need for more cultural events being conducted by the Government and expatriates being a part of it."
Arab media can be a helpful channel to create more cultural understanding. But unfortunately, says Saeed Al Mehairi, an Emirati who works at Abu Dhabi Tourism and Culture Authority: "Arab media does not display our culture.
"People think it is a 40-year-old culture because of the union, but in reality it goes back 500 years. Many Emiratis do not know about their own culture and heritage. We should be representatives of our country so that there is mutual understanding between us and expatriates."
He likes mixing with expatriates and even practises English with an American colleague.
"It is not true Emiratis do not befriend non-Emiratis. I have friends from all nationalities, and we visit each other every now and then."
He suggested one of the ways to improve relations between the nationalities is through cultural festivals at which people can learn more about locals.
AbulRahman Arif, an Emirati who obtained his master's degree in London, had no trouble with different nationalities during his stay abroad.
"If I were to have gone to a place where I didn't speak their language or know their culture, it would probably have required a lot of adjustments," he says. "But we are familiar enough with the English world not to feel too much of a cultural shock."
He said London provided many opportunities to interact with strangers.
"Every Sunday at Speaker's Corner in Hyde Park, people gather to talk about anything they wish and you can talk to anyone about anything."