x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Emiratis worry about growing flood of expats

Most Emiratis feel their sense of cultural identity and heritage is threatened as increasing numbers of expatriates flow into the country.

Most Emiratis feel their sense of cultural identity and heritage is threatened as increasing numbers of expatriates flow into the country in search of career opportunities and tax-free salaries,the Life in the UAE survey indicates. Sixty per cent of nationals questioned cited a "feeling of isolation because of increasing numbers of expatriates". Of the westerners surveyed, 71 per cent said the greatest threat to Emirati culture and national identity was the country's "highly materialistic and consumerist society".

Only a fifth of western expatriates said their burgeoning numbers threatened the cultural identity of the host nation. Thirty seven per cent of those surveyed said the busy lifestyle of residents, particularly in Abu Dhabi and Dubai, was loosening family and social ties - further pressure on a sense of national cohesion and identity. The survey, Life in the UAE, took the form of a questionnaire that was completed by 628 residents, Emirati and expatriate, across all seven emirates. It was carried out by YouGov Siraj last week after a Federal National Council meeting of more than 200 Emirati leaders and academics discussed the gradual erosion of the Emirati culture perceived by many nationals.

At that meeting, Abdul Khaleq Abdullah, professor of political science at UAE University, said globalisation and the competing interests of individual emirates were putting a tremendous strain on national identity and heritage. In the survey, 48 per cent of the nationals questioned said they should be granted special privileges to strengthen their sense of cultural identity. Maria Joao Neves, regional research director at YouGov Siraj, said that response stems from a sense of frustration and isolation among Emiratis as they become increasingly outnumbered by expatriates.

"It's a unique situation here, where the locals are the minority in their own country," she said. "In the survey they are asking for privileges and I think this is a way of protecting themselves from the sense of isolation that can result from this. Obviously they need the expatriates to continue building the country at the rate it's going, but there's definitely a feeling that with so many expats coming in, the national sense of culture and identity is being diluted by foreign cultures and influences.

"In most countries, the sense of identity comes from the fact everyone is from the same country and speaks the same language, but in a multicultural society like this, that doesn't really apply." Nationals and expatriates surveyed agreed that common cultural values, traditions, goals and aspirations were the strongest factors in a sense of national identity. Thirty nine per cent agreed that the Emirates Identity Authority - the government body in charge of setting up the national ID card scheme - could best contribute to national identity by building a "consolidated vision that all citizens and residents can relate to equally", and "communicating national values that inspire all citizens and residents alike".

Ms Neves said: "It's clear that the key to a sense of social cohesion and national identity in a country which is home to so many different nationalities is a common goal. There's no common language or common cuisine, so people need to feel they're all working towards the same achievements and goals that in turn will bring a sense of belonging." Despite misgivings about cultural identity, 96 per cent of Emiratis, 85 per cent of Arab expatriates, 65 per cent of westerners and 73 per cent of Asians said they belonged in the UAE. Most said a common language or religion were not important to cultural identity.

Nine months ago, Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed, President of the UAE and Ruler of Abu Dhabi, announced that 2008 would be dedicated to reflection on national identity. The Federal National Council's education, youth, media and culture committee is compiling a report addressing the issues and possible solutions to the problem, and once complete its recommendations will be put forward by the Ministry of Culture for full council approval. arichardson@thenational.ae