x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

The UAE's expatriate mix reflects a much wider world

The first census of the UAE's population was taken three years before federation. The country - and the world around it - has changed immensely since then

I have recently been looking at figures on the growth in the UAE's population since it was formed. The first ever census, three years before federation, set the total population at around 180,000. Latest estimates suggest it's somewhere around 8.3 million.

It's worth recalling that the country has always had significant expatriate communities for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. According to one official statement, Emiratis now account for only around 11.5 per cent of the total, outnumbered by waves of immigration, driven by employment opportunities.

What intrigues me is the changes in the composition of the expatriate community. When I arrived in Abu Dhabi many decades ago, there were plenty of Arabs from elsewhere in the region - not just from the peninsula, but from Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Palestine and other countries. There were many Iranians, too, while the flow from South Asia was well under way.

There were, perhaps, a few thousand people from Britain, a few hundred from the rest of Europe, the Americas and Australia, but much of the rest of the world was effectively unrepresented.

Over the years, not only have the numbers of some nationalities increased rapidly, but others have appeared for the first time, often growing dramatically in numbers. Today, officials say, there are more than 200 nationalities living and working in the Emirates. There has also been a change in the nature of the jobs they perform.

Back in the 1970s, most Filipinos here worked in the hospitality industry, in retail or in domestic service.

Their numbers have increased sharply, to somewhere near half a million. Many still work in those industries, but others work as dentists, oilfield engineers, traders and businessmen and women.

When I arrived, people from mainland China were so few and far between that one family which ran a furniture shop in Abu Dhabi stood out. Now, thanks to the liberalisation of China's economy and the growth of its trade with the UAE, there are more than half a million in a wide range of professions.

In the early 1970s, the UAE did not have diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union and economic ties were at a low level. The establishment of relations, late in that decade, and then the collapse of the Soviet Union prompted a growth in economic ties, notably with the newly-independent countries of Central Asia. A new wave of migrants followed, not just coming to seek work here, but also to promote bilateral trade and investment.

Others nationalities are still arriving. Over the last year or so, I have run across two for the first time.

One was a woman from Myanmar, a classic economic migrant, who had taken a job as a supermarket cashier.

The other was a Liberian who came "on spec", to see if there were any opportunities to buy goods here to sell at home. He's just finishing a second trip and is well on the way to becoming self-financing.

As more nationalities identify the economic opportunities here, so more will come, will increase the diversity of the population even further. All those expatriate communities have contributed in various ways to the building of the UAE today - and to the expansion of its economic relations with the rest of the world.

Perhaps the most difficult task is to determine the value of those contributions and to decide whether the long-term effects include negative as well as positive factors.

The social consequences of a generation of children raised by expatriate nannies are often discussed. Of more concern, perhaps, should be the impact of political ideas.

There's an unwritten rule here that expatriates should not transport political arguments from home to the UAE arena in any way that could disturb the much-envied social harmony of the UAE.

It's of little concern if expatriates argue about the varying merits of British, American or Filipino political parties. They have no relevance here.

That doesn't apply, though, to supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood or of Hizbollah or to those who seek to promote the obscurantist views of the Taliban.

That unwritten rule has served the country well - and the expatriate communities too. It's time, perhaps, to remember that it's still relevant.

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