x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

The Twitter debate on cultural insensitivity gets us nowhere

Tolerance can only be achieved through face to face dialogue and engagement, not through trading accusations on social media forums.

The UAE has always prided itself on its multicultural society, the value that each person brings in his or her own special way. The mix of cultures coming together creates a truly globalised country.

But nothing is ever perfect. In this case, the cost has been the local population seeing its numbers decline relative to the expatriate community that is living, working and raising families in the UAE. As a result, and when you think of the sheer number of nationalities that make up our population, it is easy to imagine cultural misunderstandings and even occasional arrogance regarding sensitivities. And yes, stupid mistakes will happen.

In the past, these mistakes were generally discussed in private settings and swept under the rug within a few moments. But with the rise of social media, everyone has a microphone on the world stage today. In a matter of minutes, frustrations are broadcast loud and clear, and can go viral in local and even global debate.

Over the past year, we have had three significant issues that have made waves in the Twitter-sphere: #No7DaysUAE, in response to a picture in the tabloid 7 Days, showing an Emirati throwing money into the air; #UAEDressCode, which initially sought to raise awareness about public indecency; and now #StopTimeOutDubai, after Time Out Dubai magazine published an article about the "top five" bars during the Holy Month of Ramadan.

Did 7 Days and Time Out Dubai deserve to be called out for their articles? Yes. Both showed a complete disregard for local culture and sensitivities; in Time Out Dubai's case, the error associating Ramadan and bars to sell magazines went well beyond UAE sensitivities and would offend many Muslims during the holiest month of the year.

From another angle, it is important that both publications quickly pulled the articles and issued public apologies, restating their respect for local culture and traditions. Wise move, but does the story end there? Unfortunately for both publications, it doesn't.

This is why it is important to look past the trending topics and Twitter debates, and into the heart of the matter, which goes well beyond an ill-thought-out article or a dress code. The UAE population is concerned about losing "what used to be" - socially, culturally and religiously - to the ever-advancing globalisation.

As a proud Emirati, I would like nothing more than to promote what our forefathers held dear and to enhance the values our country was built on.

But raising issues of concern can itself be damaging. Rather than using social media to create healthy dialogue and to build bridges of understanding, we seem to be furthering the cultural divide, and taking a more hard-hitting approach.

There seems to be an ever-growing disconnect between the way we use social media, and the consequences for society. Today we see such tools of technology playing an active role in toppling governments - think of the effect they can have on people who are targeted for a mistake or error in judgement. There are human beings and families on the receiving end of every word that is put out there, and we should never forget that.

The Arab world is going through some interesting - and tough - times. The UAE has stood tall in the face of challenges, but these social issues are being raised more and more often.

We will make it past these social issues and divisions; I am optimistic because I have to be for the sake of the country. But the reality is we are not going to reach mutual understanding through tweets and trending topics, but through healthy dialogue and cross-cultural awareness.

That requires us to get out from behind the computers, put down the smart phones and come together, face to face, as a country.


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

On Twitter: @KhalidAl Ameri