x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

There are places for all in the UAE's multicultural society

There is no reason for any community in the UAE to disdain any other, and it's too bad when suggestions of such attitudes arise.

A substantial number of readers commented on my column in this space two weeks ago, where I noted that most expatriates fail to learn much about the UAE's society. It's nice to know that some people sometimes read some of what I write.

In that article, I noted that many expatriates find it difficult to learn about the country, even if they wish to do so. It's easy to visit museums, or to get out and about in the mountains. It is not so easy, however, to forge relationships with Emiratis so as to learn about local culture and traditions. Language can pose a problem, since many of the Emiratis who are most familiar with traditional culture are often fluent in Arabic, but not in any other language. For reasons I understand, some of these people feel ill at ease in a multicultural environment, and that in itself can make cultural interchange a difficult process.

Emiratis who are fluent in another language are often also at ease with foreign cultures. But overall only a few are able or willing to transfer their knowledge of their own culture.

Because of these factors, and others, a hybrid culture is beginning to emerge; this is related to the UAE as a country but differs from local, Emirati culture.

The "mall culture", for example - the way in which all communities interact in malls - is a melange of many influences, and generally comfortable. That's to be expected, and not necessarily a bad thing.

I understand why Emiratis, representing 11.5 per cent of the total population according to the most recent published statistics, are worried about how to preserve their unique indigenous culture.

It is under threat, in all sorts of ways, and it is right that Government should devote attention to its promotion and protection. A programme supporting local culture cannot succeed, however, unless it takes into account the changes that have occurred over the last few decades of development. In the UAE, as elsewhere, culture evolves.

I have commented previously that I find it reprehensible that some expatriates display hostility to Emiratis, in employment and elsewhere. It is equally reprehensible that there are elements in Emirati society that appear to harbour hostility towards the presence of expatriates, particularly non-Arabs. Without them, as the late Sheikh Zayed noted, the country could not have been built.

Indeed, as Sheikh Zayed said, it is important for the UAE's future that foreign cultures, like technological and other developments, should be examined carefully, so that this country can take from them what is of value, and leave the rest aside.

So I was disappointed to see, during Ramadan, locally-made television shows poking fun at the alleged characteristics of foreign communities, and to hear of radio commentators criticising the presence of non-Arab communities.

Without non-Arab expatriates working as taxi-drivers, construction workers, shop assistants, office staff, oilfield workers, healthcare professionals, domestic staff, teachers and in many other professions, this country would grind to a halt. We all know that.

Most such expatriates work hard, and thereby contribute to the country's continuing development. They deserve credit for the role they play in the UAE as a whole, if not in Emirati society.

It is easy to view with disdain those of an unfamiliar culture, of different traditions or of a different religious faith. In some ways, this is a natural response.

It is also easy, however, for such views to cross the boundary into overt racism, damning individuals because of their origins, rather than accepting the differences that exist as a natural element of life in a multicultural society.

It is unacceptable that some expatriates sneer at Emiratis, as a whole. It is equally unacceptable that some Emiratis sneer at expatriates, who are also essential elements of the UAE's society.

It's reasonable that to be an Emirati in the UAE should confer certain rights and privileges. Citizens of other countries, in their homes, enjoy rights and privileges too. Beyond that, discrimination on the basis of race or origin poses a threat to the enviable social harmony and tolerance that prevails in the UAE.

It is also, as I recall, both against the precepts of Islam and in breach of the provisions of the country's constitution. It would be good to see, and to hear, a little less of it.


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