x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Emiratis and expats, step out of your comfort zone and talk

It's time we overcome cultural barriers and start mingling with each other

Hours before the final voting took place in Paris for Expo 2020, my family kept a steady eye on the television screen for the final verdict. When the UAE won the crown to host the expo, we were in a state of euphoria.

No doubt, the UAE’s new triumph will bring multiple benefits to the country. It will help to boost the economy, create jobs and, most notably, millions of people will flock from around the world to visit the Emirates in the upcoming years.

Though overjoyed by the victory, one thought occupied my mind: will the expo win create further segregation between the Emirati and expatriate communities?

In a fast-growing country like the UAE, we as citizens can no longer cut ourselves off. It is understandable that a cultural inhibition resides within most of us. The Indian community, for example, have created their own spot; the Filipinos have their own. So have Emiratis.

We can’t blame it on stereotypes that there is a lack of intermingling between multiple nationalities. Opportunities are countless, but it is just a matter of talking to each other, instead of looking at each other.

In a recent conversation with an Indian colleague who was born and bred in the UAE, she said that one of her regrets is not being able to learn Arabic. She went to an Indian school and never got a chance to interact with Emiratis until she started working.

Similarly, I studied mostly in a government school where all students were of Arab origins. Even though during my university years I could spot international students, I never had the courage to step out of my comfort zone and strike up a conversation with one of them.

When I got my new job, I hardly knew how to deal with people of different cultures and was cautious about any derogatory remarks. Like many, I too was spoon-fed by the media about the West and my perceptions took over the reality. It took me a few months to build sturdy and caring relationships in a culturally diverse work environment.

When I first had lunch with two British colleagues, the cultural exchange we had in 20 minutes was enormous. The more we conversed, the more we learnt the similarities and difference between the two cultures.

Needless to say, sharing culture is a two-way relationship. We don’t have to accept each other’s culture or beliefs, but respect them.

The majority of Emirati women are covered from head to toe when they step out of their houses, and as a consequence, some expatriates have been misinformed that we cover around the clock with no taste of fun in our lives. We can’t blame them for their misunderstanding because people judge based on what they see. And let’s not forget how negatively Arab women are portrayed in the Western media most of the time.

Involving our non-Emirati friends to our majlis gathering or celebrations, such as weddings, will help them to understand our lifestyle better. Some people spend decades in the UAE and are yet to attend an Emirati wedding.

When I invited some of my female colleagues to my brother’s wedding, it was a first time experience for some. One of them told me: “I got to see the other side of you [Emiratis].”

Being part of a multicultural work environment has broadened my understanding of western cultures and peoples. Not all people will understand Emiratis through observation or attending some cross-cultural courses. Even Google fails to give a concrete description about Emirati lifestyle. The only way to understand Emiratis is to talk to them.

Many people have had the opportunity to talk to the UAE Government. If our leaders are easily approachable, ordinary Emiratis can’t be any less receptive.

aalhameli@thenational

On Twitter: @Asmaa_Alhameli