x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Expatriates in a bubble can export a wrong image of the UAE

Too many expatriates in the UAE lack any real understanding of Emirati life and values.

In an opinion article a couple of weeks ago, I commented on the demographic structure of the UAE's expatriate communities, warning against the importing of controversial political agendas into the country. I received a response from a member of one of the ruling families, who asked: "What do you think about some expatriates exporting an inside look at the UAE society that is misleading?"

That does happen, regretfully. But it's not easy to tackle and there are certainly no quick-fix solutions.

Many expatriates have little exposure to UAE society - in terms of the way Emiratis live their lives. Many expatriates live their lives in a bubble, rarely encountering Emiratis outside an internationally-defined context: at work, at a restaurant, in a shopping mall or a hotel. I remember, years ago, the mother of a small girl who was a school classmate of my daughter being utterly amazed because a young Emirati girl of the same age, but not at the same school, came to my daughter's birthday party. "How do you manage to meet Emiratis?" she asked. I hadn't even realised at that time that, to some expatriates, it would pose a problem.

As a result, many expatriates lack any real understanding of the Emirati way of life. For them, Ramadan is a mild irritation to be borne, or from which to escape on leave, and the UAE's traditions and heritage, quite apart from its language, are a complete mystery.

Many, regardless of nationality, obtain only a very partial picture of "UAE society". Even those who want to learn can find it difficult to do so. Not surprisingly, as the person who commented on my last article correctly perceived, the image that they obtain is distorted and misleading.

There are efforts to try to remove those misconceptions. For example, tours of the Sheikh Zayed Mosque in Abu Dhabi provide an opportunity to learn about the role of Islam in Emirati life. Also, the branches of the Emirates Natural History Group introduce the country's heritage, wildlife and environment to those who are interested. A wander around the Ramadan festival at the Fujairah Exhibition Centre might provide some insights too - last Friday, it was packed, with perhaps over 50 per cent of the shoppers being Emirati women. Articles in the various English-language papers also play their part, though I wonder whether the local Tagalog, Urdu or Malayalam media cover news beyond matters of relevance to the individual communities that they serve.

To be sure, more needs to be done - when expatriates present a misleading or distorted view of UAE society to friends at home, that represents, in part, a failing on the part of Emiratis to communicate effectively. For all of its achievements, the country is still a work in progress, as its leaders would agree. The most one can hope for is that expatriates can access the right information to enable them to obtain, and to present to others, a fair and balanced view of local society, its failings and its continuing challenges as well as its successes.

What I do find unacceptable, however, is the way in which some expatriates expound views that are inimical to the interests of the country. One example is those who seek to promote ideologies that are unacceptable to the overwhelming majority of Emiratis.

That's easy to identify but there are forms of covert hostility that are less easy to detect. I heard recently a rumour about a practice that I find deeply objectionable. At a time when more Emiratis are seeking employment in the private sector, some recruitment firms in Dubai simply refuse to handle the CVs of Emiratis, however well-qualified they may be. In consequence, there are numerous job vacancies for which an Emirati candidate is never put forward at all. As a corollary, such firms may suggest that "Emiratis don't want to work". That's simply not true, for the most part.

I hope that employers will assess the approach being taken by the recruitment firms with whom they deal. If they find any evidence of such discrimination against Emiratis, perhaps they could simply cease dealing with them.

There is a limited amount that can be done to dissuade ill-informed or hostile expatriates from spreading misleading information about UAE society overseas. A conscious bias against Emiratis at home, however, is something that needs to be tackled effectively. Perhaps those who feel, and display, such bias should consider whether their future should lie here at all.


Peter Hellyer is a consultant specialising in the UAE's history and culture