x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Remember the contributions offered by many expatriates

The UAE's demographic mix is a cause for concern because Emiratis are a minority in their own country. But we must recognise the contributions made by so many expatriates.

'I'm a minority in my own country." As an Emirati, I think it is important to think about what that means today, what it could mean for the future of my children and generations to come, and potential consequences that we could face, whether they be social, economic or cultural.

Let's start at the beginning. Since the discovery of oil, the UAE has seen a growth trajectory unlike any other country in the world. Our leadership had a vision for this country, and for that goal we needed knowledge and, more importantly, manpower.

In that defining moment, relying only on home-grown talent and expertise was not an option. In a sense, Emiratis had to learn on the go, and luckily we had expatriate expertise to guide and support us.

Naturally, the UAE sought out the best and brightest from around the world, on the one hand. On the other, equally important, front, hundreds of thousands of workers were recruited to perform vital, labour-intensive projects in construction and other areas.

Fast-forward to 2012, and the UAE, at a relatively young 40 years old, is a model for development across the world.

So where has that left Emiratis? When it comes to quality of life and the well-being of society, the UAE ranks among the best in the world.

Everything from health care and education to marriage grants and government housing is given to citizens. Elsewhere in the world this is known as "cradle to grave" support.

Many people may argue that all of these benefits come at a cost: a severe demographic imbalance between Emiratis and the foreign population. However, when we look at recent comments, as the topic has been discussed with great intensity in the capital, concerns tend to focus more on a social integration or, rather, the lack of integration.

You can only imagine how strange it must be for people who have a hard time integrating into their own society. It would be frustrating for anyone, in his or her home country, to see the presence of indigenous culture dwindle. For many of us, it is a scary thought that our local identity may become completely diluted in the midst of this international wave of global influences that has flooded the country in such a short time.

But might I suggest another way of looking at things? While the numbers are important, most of the frustration comes from this purely quantitative perspective - there are "not enough" Emiratis, or there are "too many" expatriates. If you put that kind of analysis to the side for a second, it is important to point out the quality of life that Emiratis have grown accustomed to.

Whether we like it or not, a substantial part of that quality of life is because of the expatriate population, which has joined us in our vision of a better UAE. From the Asian tailor to the American teacher to the South Korean nuclear scientist, expatriates from every country and in every profession play a part in society. Expatriates contribute in jobs that Emiratis are still learning about, do not yet have the capabilities for, or simply don't want to do.

Additionally, it is important to note that while there may be a demographic imbalance in the UAE, in many ways Emiratis are citizens of the world, interacting on a daily basis with people from around the globe who are in the country as part of the workforce, or simply as guests.

And if you are still worried about numbers, perhaps this is where patience kicks in. In the same year - 2010 - that UAE nationals accounted for 19 per cent of the population, approximately 50 per cent of Emiratis were below the age of 19. Among young people, the expatriate-to-Emirati ratio is a lot smaller, about two to one. So as Emirati youth grow into the workforce, it could very well be possible that a larger Emirati presence will be seen in the near future.

From a cultural perspective, our Government is taking every step to preserve the UAE's traditions as a national priority. But it is also in the hands of every Emirati man, woman and child to preserve the culture and share it with long- and short-term visitors to the UAE, so people have something to remember the country by. Cultures, traditions and values may be forgotten by their people; they are not just diluted by visitors. It is our responsibility to hold on to and to share our cultural identity.

In this recent debate on the issue, one person said Emiratis had paid a high a cost for modernisation, and that we had given our country away to foreigners. I am worried about a statement like that. In today's world, it is not a matter of giving and taking, it is a matter of coming together for the greater good and future prosperity of the nation. When you look beyond the borders of the UAE, the world is getting smaller every day. Globalisation is a reality, and we should be proud that we are ahead of the game.

Emirati film director Ali Mostafa's movie City of Life gave us a realistic look into the lives of people from various nationalities in Dubai. In the movie, none of their stories directly relate to each other, but they all cross paths at one point. Nothing could describe the UAE better. We all have our own lives, cultures and backgrounds, and while invisible boundaries may separate us, they are just that - invisible. As we cross those boundaries, we contribute to each other's lives every day.

 

Khalid Al Ameri is a political and social commentator based in Abu Dhabi

On Twitter: @KhalidAlAmeri