x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 18 December 2017

In the middle of paradise, we still find it difficult to unwind

Have the pressures of work, along with the global financial crisis, led to an increase in negativity that's spilling over into holiday time?

This summer I had the pleasure of taking my family to Langkawi, a small Malaysian island of jungle, waterfalls and rivers. I was not alone. Malaysia is a favourite summer holiday destination for many Arabian Peninsula families. The people of Malaysia capture and communicate all the beauty of the Far East, and it helps that most are Muslims.

But this year there was an odd note in interactions with other tourists from the Arabian Peninsula.

Honeymooners visit the island all year, but June and July are known as "the Arab months" on Langkawi. Few other tourists brave the rain while people from the desert appreciate it. Most signs on the island include Arabic translations, and many salespeople speak a little Arabic.

The many small towns carved into a fraction of the island seem to need an immediate upgrade in waste management. But what the towns lack in beauty, they make up for in personality. The rest of the island is just pure, undisturbed nature.

This is a small island. The tourism operator who picked us up from the airport had little news about changes on the island in recent years, except to say that a second McDonald's has recently opened. (One, certainly, was more than enough.)

I have visited Langkawi many times, and this holiday the biggest difference I saw was in the tourists themselves. A highlight of our visits has been the ride through the Agro Technology Park, which includes a variety of fruit farms. Being a sociable person, I was looking forward to a chat with the fathers and husbands in the three other Gulf families who were on this year's tour with us.

But I immediately sensed the distance each family was trying to keep, and I kept to myself and my own. The four families went through the entire one-hour tour, side by side, without exchanging a word.

Every day I noticed the obvious distance separating Arab tourists. True, holidays are often the only time when we can completely unwind in terms of customs and formalities. Everyone puts on a certain type of outfit or mask for work, and indeed for most occasions. Holidays can be a time to set aside formalities.

Even with those considerations in mind, however, this distance seemed exceptional.

My suspicions were confirmed by a gentleman to whom I spoke during a ride on the island's cable car. He recognised my concern and had an interesting theory: the stress of work, along with the global financial crisis, has led to an increase in workplace negativity.

As a government employee, he felt that Arabian Peninsula nationals interacted mostly with other nationals during work or business, and related meeting each other abroad to the negative feelings at the workplace. So, making acquaintances seemed too much like work.

Perhaps there is truth to this theory. Or perhaps the stress of our daily lives has just pushed us to be more secluded.

Whatever the reason, things are changing and times are tough for many, not just in the UAE but all over the world. Perhaps we need to ease up a little on some of our formalities during these pressing times, to allow for a more relaxing workplace.


Taryam Al Subaihi is an Abu Dhabi-based political and social commentator who specialises in corporate communications

On Twitter: @TaryamAlSubaihi