x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Our shared national goals should unite Emiratis and expats

One apparent by-product of rapid growth is that Emiratis and expatriates do not seem to mingle as much as previously. But in fact they have important things in common.

Over the last few weeks, the country's media has been scrambling to find new ways of marking National Day and of portraying the development that the UAE has enjoyed over the past four decades. Since I've been a resident of the UAE for many years, I've received a number of calls from journalists and commentators who are seeking ideas about the country's development.

On occasion, this has involved an element of humour. One writer, who will remain unnamed, was planning a feature article focusing on Jahili Fort in Al Ain as a way of explaining the country's rich heritage and history. The writer might have blushed a little - after referring to the "Jahiliya Fort", which would suggest that the building dates back to the "days of ignorance" before Islam came to the Arabian peninsula. Jahili Fort is, of course, somewhat younger than that.

Another writer asked me about my thoughts on how Abu Dhabi had changed in the years since I first arrived. That change has been quite remarkable, of course, in terms of the growth of the infrastructure. Hotels, health care, housing, roads, schools, transport - all are so much better than they were, thanks to the considerable investment that has been made over the years.

Anyone who has been here as long as I have would immediately identify those physical changes, and I have to say that I still look back with some nostalgia when thinking about the pristine environment outside the cities, and sometimes even inside them. But of course, overall that development is something very much to be welcomed.

Another change, of course, is in the population - not just in terms of numbers, but also in the demographics. Many ethnic communities that are now very much a feature of Abu Dhabi's everyday life - including communities of Central Asians, South Africans and Chinese - are a fairly recent addition, with large-scale arrivals only in the last couple of decades. These new communities have changed the nature of local society.

It occurs to me that perhaps one of the greatest changes that has taken place, with almost imperceptible but nonetheless significant results, is the way in which there appears to be much less social exchange between different communities these days. The population of the capital is approaching 1.5 million people according to recent estimates, compared to only a few hundred thousand in the mid-1970s. Many people now spend almost all of their lives outside work (and sometimes in work, too) interacting primarily with people of their own nationality.

One result is that many expatriates rarely interact with Emiratis on a social level, although often children in school have a much greater degree of familiarity. One consequence is that many expatriates may know very little of the country in which they are living.

Recently, this issue came up in a discussion I had with a long-term British resident of Dubai. He had recently asked some other British residents of Dubai - who had arrived in the past two or three years - if they spent time with any Emiratis socially. He was amazed to find that none of them had any Emirati friends at all.

In consequence, he concluded that many expatriates appear to be living in a bubble: they physically live in the UAE, but they don't have any meaningful connection to the country. I have to concur.

Sometimes this is painfully obvious. Just visit a mall, or observe tourists in some conservative mountain village, and you will often see expatriates wearing clothing and displaying behaviour that causes offence to Emiratis because it is so obviously disrespectful to local customs and traditions.

This situation is quite a contrast with the early days of the UAE, when Emiratis and expatriates mixed happily in offices, hotels, restaurants, majlises and private homes - and when their children regularly played together out of school.

Among some Emiratis, as the tide of expatriates has grown (and now accounts for nearly 90 per cent of the total population), there has been a trend towards withdrawing behind both physical and mental walls. In a way, it's understandable as citizens are deluged with imported languages, values and traditions.

But we have to be cautious of an overgeneralisation, of course. Many Emiratis and expatriates do still interact socially with each other, in a process from which both sides benefit. This social interaction is something that should be encouraged. Only on special occasions, such as National Day for many people, does the whole population come together in a common celebration.

Looking ahead, perhaps one of the challenges facing the country on the occasion of this 41st National Day is to search for ways in which all communities - Emiratis and others - can once again share a common purpose in the promotion of a society based upon mutual respect and cultural exchange.

Just as the strengths of the UAE federation has been based on the alignment of the seven emirates, so too will it depend on the pursuit of common goals in the future. Emiratis and expatriates should share these goals.


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