x Abu Dhabi, UAE Friday 21 July 2017

As the UAE evolves, expatriates might want to follow suit

The transformation of the UAE has been dramatic, and expatriate attitudes have also changed, but more slowly.

In Aristotle's Poetics, an early treatise on dramatic theory, we read that an essential element in any great story, be it tragedy or comedy, is a "reversal". Perhaps it is the radical reversal of economic fortunes that makes the Gulf's recent history so infinitely tellable.

Certainly, many book titles discussing the region - From Rags to Riches, Sand to Silicon, From Pearls to Oil - clearly reflect this "transformation fixation".

Such works generally describe the massive changes wrought by socio-economic transition, either lamenting losses or trumpeting the triumphal tune of regional progress.

The dominant theme, however, is always "change" - changing landscapes, changing lifestyles and changing values. But what of the western expatriates and their lifestyles and cultural values? How have they changed or progressed over the years?

I recently discovered an essay by the celebrated author and founder of the Institute for Cultural Research, Idries Shah. Amongst many other accolades, Shah is famous for his anthropological studies of the British, published in books such as Darkest England and The Natives are Restless. The essay in question was entitled Skiving in the Sun, and it described the British expatriate community of Bahrain in the 1980s. I read it with fascination to see how much - if at all - Shah's description would resonate with my own experience as a British expatriate in the UAE some 30 years later.

Shah describes Bahrain's British expatriates of the 1980s as being overly negative about their homeland; they variously describe Britain as lacking in opportunity or as being in a state of terminal economic decline and social deterioration.

However, in spite of these less than favourable views of the sceptred isle, the British expatriates are also described as displaying an almost fanatical desire to cling to, and recreate, every vestige of their home environment and cultural background.

Shah details how the Britons of 1980s Bahrain imported British foodstuffs, and immersed themselves in local press, radio and TV, all written, produced and performed by Britons for Britons.

At the heart of this community was the British Club, built on the foundations of an earlier British military establishment. The Club is described as an attempt to faithfully recreate the great British pub, complete with authentic Sunday lunch, faithfully served each weekend.

Another notable feature of the 1980s expatriate lifestyle is reported as the tendency to leave Bahrain at any given opportunity, with many families spending almost as much time out of the country as in it, taking several overseas holidays each year. And the summer exodus, of course, was a must for virtually all expatriate families.

Shah's overarching impression of this community was one of listlessness and dissatisfaction, a situation he proposes might be remedied by greater attempts to understand or adapt to the local culture and lifestyle. Finding a Briton with even a handful of Arabic words was a particularly difficult task, he suggests. Arabic of course, is the key to a deeper understanding of Gulf culture and perhaps opens doors to more meaningful connections.

Some of Shah's descriptions still ring true to my ears. We still have a British Club, although the one in Abu Dhabi is now known simply as "The Club". And finding western expatriates who can go beyond shukran and marhaba is still fairly challenging.

That said, I do think that today's expatriates are making greater efforts to learn Arabic (a particularly difficult language for English speakers). I also suspect today's expatriates are generally more appreciative of diversity than their 1980s equivalents. Similarly, for better or for worse, globalisation has reduced cultural differences, and British 20-something's and their Khaliji counterparts have had far more shared experiences than their parents' generation ever did. They have watched the same movies and TV shows and surfed the same internet.

While the British expatriate community has not witnessed massive changes in the past 30 years, there has been slow, steady, positive progress, but none of the rapid reversals that make for a particularly great story. However, the dramatic effect of a "reversal" lies in its unexpectedness. Who knows what fate awaits the Gulf's expatriate communities over the next 30 years?


Justin Thomas is an associate psychology professor at Zayed University in Abu Dhabi

On Twitter: @jaytee156