x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

The economic class divide is no barrier to mutual respect

Take our poll: When a man, regardless of his employment class, is simply standing in a public area and is told to leave, there is clearly a problem that the UAE needs to address.

It is hard to find any redeeming quality that comes out of a class system. To think that someone is judged in advance, with a future that is predetermined and, most of all, destined to be treated in a certain way just because of nationality or occupation seems very outdated.

What is worse is that a person might not even have a say in the matter, as in some countries that have strict class or caste hierarchies. If you are born into a certain position, it can be nearly impossible to move up the social ladder.

The UAE is not immune to this way of thinking, and I would say that a class system does exist here. But in the UAE, the class system is not as extreme as in some other countries in terms of a predetermined fate. Because of the dynamic circumstances established by the country's growth and demographic shift, there is more opportunity for upwards mobility.

The class system in the UAE is largely defined by the classic income-based definition that groups people based on their occupations, rather than by their ethnicity. When you look at the UAE's urgency in recent decades to develop both economically and socially, there was a huge demand for talented professionals from across the world, regardless of their nationality. Development milestones and the national vision demanded no less.

There have been three momentous shifts in the UAE's demographics: leading the charge was the multinational white-collar workforce, followed by the male-dominated blue-collar labour force, predominately from India and Pakistan, and last but not least was the domestic workforce mainly from South-east Asia, and in particular from the Philippines.

Therefore, when we define the class system in the UAE, it is the types of jobs that are relevant, although we do see that certain nationalities have provided the majority of the workforce in some sectors.

This employment-based class system is a by-product of the economic development model. But this demographic shift, especially the increase in the young male labour force, has affected Emiratis' day-to-day lives, on the one hand, and on the other has ramifications for how members of certain employment classes are treated.

Many young women feel uncomfortable going to popular public areas around the city because of the gender imbalance. It is safe to say that this is a major social issue. Equally, when a man, regardless of his employment class, is simply standing in a public area and is told to leave, there is clearly a problem to be addressed.

Having said that, we are not talking about one man. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of young male workers who gather in public areas where families also spend their time. It is easy to see how the gender imbalance could cause situations of discomfort to arise.

So where is the middle ground? These young men have often come from a background of poverty, work long hours during the week often in uncomfortable weather conditions, and provide support for their families back home. When they are given one day a week to blow off some steam, society tells them no.

In terms of a private-sector solution, employers could spread out the holidays for their workforce and identify several public drop-off locations, rather than dropping thousands of workers off at the same place, at the same time and on the same day. This could help in making the environment more comfortable for everyone, and in parallel address the gender imbalance.

On the government level, Abu Dhabi has taken a critical first step by budgeting Dh20 billion to spend on labour cities that will accommodate as many as 385,000 workers, which will include various forms of sports facilities and social activities, as well as parks, markets, mosques, cinemas, and internet and cable television services. This will provide opportunities for these young men to socialise that are now non-existent.

The charitable sector has also taken a big role with initiatives such as the "big bus raids", which bring together members of the community to show their appreciation and distribute gifts to construction workers. This is critical to build bridges spanning the ever-growing social gap between employment classes, and could be the stepping stone towards a dialogue that contributes to social and cultural understanding.

Many class systems around the world privilege one class over the other, but it is safe to say that every employment class within the UAE has played a critical role in the development of our nation. While a real understanding among the various classes may still be a distant goal, I believe we can all start by showing each other a little appreciation for everything we have accomplished on this 40-year journey. There are more reasons for us to come together than to fall apart.


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

On Twitter: @KhalidAlAmeri