It's a fine balance in the UAE between Arabic culture and western influence, as Elizabeth Pearson hears from four young Emiratis.
Emirati youth feel the pressure
The UAE is changing at a hurtling speed. Not since the emergence of teenagers in 1960s Britain has a social group been at such odds with the previous generations.
Confidence within today's youth is striking; they are better educated than ever, with goals that would have been unthinkable just 20 years ago. The UAE is on the world stage and Emiratis know it. They are being observed from both the East and the West on how they move forward and find a balance between the conflicting cultures in their nation. This is a unique set of pressures for the shoulders of one generation.
Speaking with a small group of graduates, M magazine asked about their daily lives and their opinions on some common pressures. After work, the young men hang out in malls, drinking coffee and catching up with the day. The music that blares from the shops doesn't impress much and many prefer older-style Arabic music. R&B pumps out but only one young man, Omar Al Ismail, claims to like it.
"There is no music in today's songs, no story," says Abdulla Al Nuaimi, a 22-year-old graduate trainee with Dubai Aluminium. "I much prefer the slower, older music, even poetry."
Other Emiratis concur, but it is difficult to source older Arabic music. The modern method of buying music is on the internet, but traditional Arabic music doesn't make its way to iTunes. There are CDs in some music stores, but they are specialist and small, tending to be dotted randomly about, and as Hana Al Suwaidi, a fashion designer points out: "Cassettes are so 90s, and they even sell those big DVDs [LPs]."
According to the youngsters, traditional music is disappearing and there are few homegrown music stars. The UAE, they say, is not a nation that is known for supporting the arts, unlike Kuwait.
"I really respect Kuwait; there is so much theatre and poetry there and they support the arts; the UAE could do more," Al Nuaimi says to the nodded agreement of others.
At least when it comes to fashion, Emiratis have their distinguished national dress that links them to the past, though some younger men now eschew it. Al Nuaimi, looking elegant in his kandura, wears both styles regularly and explains that it is customary to have six kanduras made every three months, varying the weight of the cloth for summer and winter. Previously, Eid was the time to get your bespoke kanduras, but now there is pressure to look consistently immaculate.
As Al Nuaimi says: "If you are going to dress in the kandura, do it properly or just wear jeans - don't mess around with baby blue, stick to traditional colours."
Al Suwaidi, 22, the designer for her international brand, Royal Court, agrees with his comments on kanduras but has a different opinion regarding abayas. She makes bespoke limited edition pieces that use the traditional form as a base and then adds a modern twist. Debuting at the Young Entrepreneur Competition this year, she seems in tune with her contemporaries.
For some, even this recent interpretation is not enough. Afra Atiq, an Emirati-American who recently graduated in applied communications from Dubai Women's College, believes there is no need for a woman to cover with an abaya as long as she is dressed modestly. At a recent job interview, Atiq, 22, was admonished for not wearing an abaya despite dressing virtuously, so she walked out. Always outspoken, she is pretty with a confident laugh. At college, her nickname was "Jessica the American" as she wore yellow and not the ubiquitous black.
Atiq is one of the 85 per cent of Emiratis between 15 and 29 who have been to school or college, compared to 38 per cent of the previous generation. This leap is largely due to the dedication of 25 per cent total federal Government spending on education. Al Suwaidi believes that, after the global financial crisis, business degrees are becoming increasingly popular, overtaking previous favourites such as marketing and advertising. Al Ismail, 22, agrees, and is off to the UK to study for his master's degree after graduating in accounting and finance from the American University in Sharjah. A dynamic, ambitious young man, he wants a career in finance and to work for a private international company, unlike many of his local peers who see Government jobs as a more attractive option.
Al Nuaimi explains that many of his peers say they want to work for private companies but really prefer the Government as they like the hours.
"You are finished by 2 o'clock," he says, smiling although, as Al Suwaidi points out, the Government is changing work hours to align with the private sector, so everyone has to become more competitive.
This shift means the workplace dynamic is changing, though many new graduates still expect to be managers and have instant prestige.
"The attitude is arrogant," says Atiq. "I'd like to see the words 'executive' and 'leadership' banned".
Al Suwaidi, who owns her own company, knows the value of diligence and that not everything should come easily. She is more ptimistic that things are improving, believing that "money and salary are now earned step by step".
A concern for recent graduates is the job market, as the unemployment rate among Emiratis stands at 13 per cent. This concern for the lack of jobs means that young Emiratis focus on their elders, wanting them to step aside to free up jobs. Al Ismail believes in a dedicated work ethic and that people should retire by the "end of their 50s. Unless you own your business, most people stop working by the end of that time".
Officially, the retirement age for Emiratis is 55 for women and 60 for men, but the Federal National Council is looking at early retirement for women after 15 years. Allowing for a degree, a woman could retire at 36 and, with life expectancy at 77.9 years, could have a pension for 43 years after just 15 in the workforce: an expensive pension regime.
Unsurprisingly, marriage seems to be on these young people's minds as much as employment. Is it a given that they want to be married?
Al Suwaidi laughs. "There is pressure," she says. "You could have won the Nobel Peace Prize, found a cure for Aids, won a Grammy, but if you are 30 and not married it's a case of 'What's wrong with her?'"
Most are keen to settle down only once they have finished their education. There is a real fear of divorce, as more than a third of Emirati marriages officially break down. Al Ismail says: "Many people are getting married at the beginning of their 20s, but I believe that the most successful marriages are those that happen in the late 20s."
Women are also increasingly discerning, demanding that their rights to a house and land, and to be able to work and continue their education within the marriage, are stipulated in writing in the marriage contract, known as nikah.
"Women need to know their rights," says Al Suwaidi. "A husband will come around the age of 25 or later. Getting married earlier is no good thing."
Arranged marriages are on the decline, with many Emiratis being introduced to potential partners and getting to know them first before deciding on lifetime commitment. This adaptation of a previous custom is seen as a direct result of the divorce statistics.
Despite having parents who were a love match when they met in the US, Atiq is now ambivalent to arranged marriages. When she was younger she was adamant that she would have refused to have her husband chosen for her, but now might accept that. "My parents know me so well and love me," she says. "I would trust them to do the right thing."
Al Nuaimi is slightly more circumspect, and is not sure he's ready for marriage. For him the worry is being able to meet eligible young women in a manner that is respectable and not offensive. He laments that if he sees a young woman he finds attractive at the mall, custom and tradition prevent him from approaching her.
He has been given some friendly advice, such as calling his sister or a female cousin to come to the mall to befriend the girl who catches his eye. The rules are clear: absolutely no direct questions or intent must be admitted; it must all seem casual.
If this sounds complicated, it is. These women are well practised in subterfuge and would be hard pressed to release their name, rank and file to the toughest of interrogators. They deftly brush aside any personal questions with a smile and an ambivalent nod. Only the most dedicated and cunning admirer will win any ground.
"I don't know what they do but all I hear is the word 'party'," mulls one Emirati chap. "They are forever at parties, while we hang out at the mall."
Where to hang out is a question that vexes many young Emiratis. Though some play sport, it is mostly segregated in teams playing volleyball or football, or solitary such as swimming. Other than the mall or each other's houses there is little for today's youth to do. This is where community spirit presents opportunities. GYEM (Global Youth Empowering Movement) is a youth centre that provides spirit in abundance, and Atiq, the events director there, is fiercely proud of it. The venue, with its funky orange-walled interior, is in Dubai Festival City and was donated by its sponsors. Others gave furniture and paint so that the young people could style it into a place where they want to hang out. Running workshops and evenings for all youths, GYEM gives them a safe and inspiring place to be. All nationalities mix here, either at workshops or at social events such as open mike nights showcasing poetry and music.
As one Emirati points out, it is great to hang out with youths from outside the UAE, as segregated schools often mean they are isolated from other nationalities and miss out on having foreign friends. Even so, "they leave so there didn't seem to be any point".
Al Ismail also feels estranged but from the opposite angle; he thinks his US-based education has alienated him more from his culture, though he is not entirely unhappy about it.
"I got used to this lifestyle and I'm not regretting it," he says.
He adds that, strangely, he has no Emirati friends, and sees his outlook as more foreign than local, especially as he dresses in western clothes. He believes the UAE is a great place to live, though, as there is such a good standard of living here.
Al Nuaimi doesn't feel alienated and also demonstrates the initiative of his generation with his involvement with Young Eager Steps (Yes), which aims to help disadvantaged Emirati youth. Despite working full time, he donates his time and energy as general coordinator to the group.
Every year Yes picks a new project and gets involved by fundraising and dedicating time to help. This year the group is supporting orphans, and organised a successful charity walkathon. It also arranges trips, and built a Yes playroom at a Sharjah orphanage.
These community projects are a positive indicator of engagement within society. Yes, there is a huge western influence in the UAE, but Al Nuaimi thinks it has always been here and that it is just more obvious now. He also appreciates that one has to understand the past to understand the future, and is not afraid of absorbing new influences.
Atiq is keen to point out that there are many misconceptions by both cultures about each other, especially about women.
"I have never felt oppressed," she says. She also sees the positive in her gender's achievements in that "women have a competitive edge over Emirati men because we have a need to prove ourselves, which pushes us further and makes us achieve more".
Al Ismail, slightly more circumspect, adds: "On so many levels, I feel that I have lost my Emirati identity." The old ways are eroding for him, and, like many Emiratis, he rarely eats traditional food, wears traditional clothes for only official events and family gatherings, and feels there can be friction with the previous generations no matter how supportive they are.
"For us, the new generation," he says, "the problem is that there are two kinds of people here. Some will be those who advocate cultural values and [others are] those who want to be more exposed to foreign lifestyles. It has kind of reached the point where you can't find a middle line between both extremes."
While this could be true, there are some dedicated young Emiratis determined to master that fine balancing act.
Quick questions for a teenager
Ahmed Samir is a dynamic social media mass communicator and blogger. While he is not an Emirati like the older youths in the accompanying article, the 16-year-old Egyptian, who is the eldest of four children, was born and raised in the UAE, and Abu Dhabi is his home. He does not yet face issues such as jobs and marriage as do the young Emiratis we spoke to, but he is, it seems, a typical UAE Arab teenager.
WHAT DO YOU LISTEN TO? Soul, western rock: Adele and Coldplay
WHAT'S YOUR PERSONAL TAKE ON FASHION? Disaster
IS EDUCATION IMPORTANT? Yes, it's a part of your identity, both conventionally in school and life's experience
SHOULD YOU GO TO UNIVERSITY? Of course, but not just as a career pathway but to draw on the learning environment
WHERE ARE THE TEENAGE HANGOUTS? Malls and the internet
WHAT'S YOUR FUTURE CAREER? Media industry, either as a film-maker or a journalist
WHEN SHOULD PEOPLE GET MARRIED? When the love has evolved between two people to make it right
SHOULD WOMEN CONTINUE TO WORK AFTER MARRIAGE? Yes
HOW DO YOU MAINTAIN ARABIC CULTURE AGAINST WESTERN INFLUENCE? Separation in social groups tends to be by nationality, especially at school. Influence is resisted by staying insular