x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

Communication is the key to restore small-town feeling

Abu Dhabi has grown by leaps and bounds, but municipal services haven't always kept up.

Only 20 years ago, the number of neighbourhoods in Abu Dhabi could be counted on the fingers of one hand. The city was smaller and the proximity of residents meant most of us were kept abreast of events by word of mouth, especially in areas where Emiratis made up the majority.

Social isolation was not an issue; families were integrated with others around them. Downtown also had much more of a feeling of community, with a high probability of bumping into acquaintances, family or friends during a stroll down Hamdan, Electra or Khalifa streets.

One of the advantages of living so closely together was the privilege of being raised among friends and colleagues from a rich variety of cultural backgrounds. It was an exciting experience building relations with people from all over the world, learning who we were as Emiratis through the constant exposure to the differences in cultures that we experienced in our daily lives.

Over time, new neighbourhoods began to flourish, each growing its own personality. These are now recognised and embedded into the DNA of the majority of Emiratis and long-term residents in Abu Dhabi. The tolerance of UAE society is obvious in these communities, which represent every colour, race and creed standing side by side with shared goals.

Within those smaller, more tight-knit residential areas, there was easy access to government services in terms of safety, security, health and education. Waiting in line at the doctor's was never an issue; schools were nearby and there were plenty of places for pupils in the classroom.

The population growth since then has surprised many people. The mushrooming residential areas allowed community leaders to shape their neighbourhoods, building shared communities (now sometimes represented online as well) where residents can participate with suggestions and feedback about how to improve the standard of living in their little part of the UAE. This has led to impressive results in some areas while others have yet to follow.

Other aspects that have led to more active communities have been the growing demand for accommodation and soaring rents. Residents are often paying substantial rents, and in turn demand timely and comprehensive services.

However, no matter how much communities have taken it upon themselves to improve their living standards, their efforts can take them only so far. Roadblocks in the system, remote service providers and inaccessible officials lead many well-intentioned residents to hit a brick wall. Without a direct line to officials who are the decision makers on security issues, infrastructure, health and education, the path to change can be prohibitively time consuming.

Abu Dhabi has made outreach efforts in recent years, with hotline numbers advertised on public buses and hoardings. Often municipality officials respond rapidly to complaints and questions, but there is still a gap between most residents and government, in perception if not always in fact.

To put it simply, members of each community need to be more informed. From wanting to know about the new traffic light that has taken 18 months to install, to how many patrol cars make the rounds on a weekly basis, residents require an open dialogue with someone who is qualified, capable and willing to provide answers and solutions.

An example in Dubai is Lieutenant General Dahi Khalfan Tamim, the police chief. His constant dialogue with the media over the years has given a face to Dubai Police, informing residents about security issues in their city, and on many more matters besides.

By opening this line of communication between official and community members, citizens and residents will be able to take a more active role in improving the standards of living in their neighbourhoods. As is evident at the grassroots level, many community members would happily volunteer to represent their communities in similar discussions.

Open lines of communication would ensure that people were informed about municipal affairs, and also that officials were made aware about the problems and issues that concern residents, which are often obscured in the bureaucratic process. And although public safety is exceptional in the UAE, programmes such as neighbourhood watches, under the auspices of municipality officials, could be excellent ways to bring communities closer together towards common goals that improve the quality of life in the city.

Communities and neighbourhoods are achieving results through their social networking, but their voices need to be heard at the municipal level. Community members have much to offer and require only a conversation with decision-makers to make that clear.

At the local level, many citizens and residents are eager to contribute to further improve the quality of life here. By opening these doors, officials and community members will find that the relationship will prove to be beneficial for both sides.

 

Taryam Al Subaihi is a social and political commentator specialising in corporate communications