x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

My UAE: Proud and privileged

As the UAE celebrates its four decades as a nation, Erin McCafferty talks to half a dozen residents who've seen the emirates' dramatic changes. To a man and a woman, they say they're grateful for the opportunities they've had, and pleased with the country's progress.

"I think we're embracing the changes while still retaining our old values," says the Emirati artist Abdul Qadar Al Rais.
"I think we're embracing the changes while still retaining our old values," says the Emirati artist Abdul Qadar Al Rais.

Majestic skyscrapers that rise into the cloudless blue sky and glint as they catch the sunlight in their windows; super-fast sports cars that weave in and out of roads on multiple-laned highways; chic marinas and sleek yachts; and people so perfectly groomed they look like they come straight from the catwalk.

Driving through modern-day Dubai it's almost impossible to believe that just 40 years ago, the city was little more than a small fishing port frequented by traders and with clusters of families, many of whom lived in makeshift huts or single-storey dwellings.

Few would argue that the difference between "old Dubai" and "new Dubai" is mind-blowing. Few cities in the world have undergone such rapid changes in such a short time, from rural port to one of the most cosmopolitan metropolises in the world.

And it's not just Dubai. Such as transformation has affected all seven emirates in varying degrees. In fact, the UAE has undergone modernisation at such a rapid pace that some would argue its culture also is changing irrevocably.

A recent article by professors at the American University of Sharjah argues against this case, however. Peter Heath and Nada Mourtada Sabah draw the conclusion that while the UAE's landscape, economy and lifestyle have changed, the intrinsic nature of the Emirati culture remains due to its strong values.

"But despite the fact that it has become modernised beyond belief in recent years," the professors write of the UAE, "Emirati families remain true to their traditions in many respects. The family norms and values that they always cherished still exist, and as a result families, neighbours and traditional allies are as valued as ever. The bottom line is that while many modernised countries in the world have let their once strong sense of community become eroded, the Emirates has succeeded in keeping the traditional cross ties amongst its people intact."

As the nation's 40th birthday approaches, we talk to six locals to find out where the truth lies.


Mohammed Shehab, champion snooker player

As the UAE's champion snooker player for more than a decade, Mohammed Shehab is well aware of the positive changes in UAE society. Why? Because he credits his sporting career to them.

"I've always been grateful for the opportunities I've been afforded," says the unassuming 35-year-old who works in the IT department of Abu Dhabi Police."We have so many opportunities here that didn't exist before, and we're not such a large race so they're open to all."

Growing up and living most of his life in Abu Dhabi, Shehab remembers a different city. "There were few high-rises back then and more of a sense of community. But in the past 10 years everything has changed."

But he views these changes as positive. "The modern Emirati ifestyle is great. I often meet young men like me when I travel to snooker tournaments in other countries. They haven't had the chance to represent their national team or received the support that I've had."

This is a man who practices for two or three hours per day, and when he's not working, six. "It takes a lot of dedication and discipline to be successful at snooker," he says. "You have to stay calm at all times."

He has been winning snooker matches since he started playing at the age of 12, influenced by his father, Mustafa Shehab, a former UAE snooker champion who also represented his country. Now the top UAE player for almost a decade, Shehab is proud of his roles on the national team and individually.

"But it is not something I ever take lightly," he says. "I'm aware that I've been bestowed with a great privilege, so I try to conduct myself in the right manner and, of course, make my country proud."


Dr Houriya Kazim, pioneering surgeon

The first female Emirati surgeon in the UAE, Dr Houriya Kazim has travelled to many parts of the world. She also spent much of her youth abroad.

"I used to tell people I was from Dubai," says the doctor, "and they would look at me with a blank expression. Now their eyes pop," she adds, laughing. "'Oh really?' they say and you can tell they're impressed."

Although she grew up in the UK and the Caribbean and later studied in Canada and Ireland, Kazim, now in her early 50s, was born in Bur Dubai and regularly returned to her homeland to spend time with her extended Emirati family.

"I remember visiting my great-grandmother's house in Bastakiya," she recalls."We would sit on the ground and I'd talk and to her and my grandmother and my aunts. It was a happy house in a small community by the Creek and everyone knew each other in the area. My grandparents lived there, too, and my grandfather used to own one of the dhows. He had made a living as a merchant - travelling to and from India and Iran and buying and selling goods.

"That was as recently as the late Seventies and early Eighties, and yet the area has changed so much. I found myself visiting it recently and feeling a pang of nostalgia for how it used to be."

She hastens to add, however, that she does not consider the modernisation of Dubai, or of the UAE as a whole, for that matter, to be a bad thing. "We have so many things that we didn't have before," she says, "for example, a health service and access to education which, in my opinion, is key to improvements in any society."

Being a woman who has broken new ground by working in a field that was traditionally the preserve of men, Kazim is appreciative of the opportunities now available to UAE women.

"Women are now being educated and have employment opportunities and it's great," she says. "I've always been proud of being Emirati but these days I am even more so."


Khalaf Al Habtoor, conglomerate chief

Walking into the office of Khalaf Al Habtoor, the chairman of the Al Habtoor Group - a Dubai-based business conglomerate with branches in the hotel, engineering, car sales and leasing, publishing and education sectors - you cannot help but be struck by the grandeur of the room.

Sliding wooden panelled doors reveal an expansive chamber with plush leather sofas, heavy mahogany furniture and large windows offering views of Al Wasl Road, letting in the crisp morning sunlight.

Although geographically near, it's a far cry from the small coastal district of Al Shindagah where Al Habtoor, one of the 500 wealthiest men in the world, was raised.

"We had one bedroom, in which we all slept and it was very small - about two by three metres," recalls the 62-year-old. "But as children we were always outside. We used to run barefoot in the sand and we were often in the sea. We used to bathe in it each day; swim in it for recreation; and the sea provided us with food. It was everything to us.

"Few people had cars back then. My father bought a secondhand car which had been used by the British military and he used to drive it without a driving license - as everyone did."

He continues: "Our food was simple but healthy. We only had fruit and fruit juice when we were ill and the only vegetables available were radishes and the leaves of the al ghaf tree that grew locally."

Although Al Habtoor regrets the demise of community in the city, he points out that such changes are simply the down-side of progress. "Let's face it, if you want to become a developed country, then you have to be willing to compromise certain aspects of your culture and realise that life is going to be lived at a faster pace."

Al Habtoor is proud of the way his country has changed. "Both the UAE and Dubai in particular have developed for the better. Not only is Dubai a safe haven for people of different nationalities from all over the world, we offer so much more than other countries. It already has one of the best infrastructures in the world. What's more, factors like education, medical treatment and housing are all provided by the Government.

"And the system works," he adds referring to the UAE's structure of rulers, ministers and federal council.

But in the rush to modernise, does he believe that the UAE in general has lost its Arabic culture? Al Habtoor shakes his head. "The lifestyle may have changed but the basic Emirati culture is strong and remains the same."


Nujoom Alghanem, film-maker and poet

She may be known as a poet and a film-maker, but as a young woman Nujoom Alghanem longed to study fine art. Raised by her grandparents in Bur Dubai, she admits she had a lonely childhood - seeking solace in reading, writing and painting.

However, when she broached the subject of studying abroad with her father, he quashed the idea immediately, simply because she was a woman.

It's a point the 49-year-old highlights now as an example of how much better off she believes modern UAE society is.

"Now there are universities here - we no longer need to go abroad," she says. "And this is particularly important for Emirati women."

The desire to study art never left her and despite the fact that she became a well-known poet and worked as a journalist for eight years, Alghanem eventually accomplished her dream.

"I was working as the head of Arts and Culture for Dubai and Northern Emirates and they awarded me a scholarship to study something media-related," she says. "As a result I went to Ohio University in the United States to study TV." But she also studied fine art as a minor part of her degree, which later led her to realise she wanted to make films for a living.

Alghanem was then in her late 20s. Married with two children, she says it was anything but easy to complete the four-year degree. "It was a struggle, but we did it," she says, smiling. She adds that her husband, Khalid Albudoor, studied film and is now a writer and researcher, and that it was he who encouraged her to attend university.

She's grateful for that and also for the scholarship she received from the Government, but returning to Dubai in 1999 she was faced with a film industry still in its infancy. "Film production was very limited," she says. "Most films here were being made for TV. "And she found it difficult to get financing for her films.

In recent years she's found it somewhat easier to acquire financing. She's also seen the film industry here grow. "The Government has done a lot to encourage it," she says. "I am hopeful that it will grow more in the future. She pauses: "We are blessed to be born in this country and to live here at this very exciting time. It is just the beginning of something great."


Abdul Qadar Al Rais, large-scale painter

While some may consider the half-finished buildings, all the cranes and the concrete that litter the city of Dubai ugly, in the eyes of Abdul Qadar Al Rais they are anything but.

"I love the construction work in Dubai, "he says. "To me it's beautiful. It's symbolic of the city, which is constantly developing."

This is someone who makes a living from creating beautiful images. Indeed, few artists in the UAE are quite as well known as Al Rais, and he puts it down to being Emirati.

Born in Dubai, the 60-year-old painter studied art in Kuwait but has lived most of his life in the city. It's where he gets the inspiration for his work -mostly large-scale oil and acrylic paintings - both contemporary and classical in style. He's grateful not only that the country is so receptive to artists, but also that it has actively fostered a thriving art scene.

"I owe my success to the UAE," says Al Rais, standing in front of a canvas festooned with brightly coloured strokes of paint in his studio in Jumeriah. "This country has allowed me to become the person I am today.

"When I first started working as an artist, there was little or no art scene in Dubai. However, all that has changed."

Al Rais spent years working as a Sharia lawyer before taking up art full time. In 1989, he sold some paintings to Sheikh Mohammed and Sheikh Hamdan, and their support helped to put him on the road to success.

Fast forward 30-odd years and Dubai is fast making a name for itself as an international art hub with annual events such as Art Dubai; a myriad of art galleries that could rival those of any sophisticated city; and a community of artists, both local and international. And Al Rais points out that Dubai is not the only emirate championing the arts, mentioning Sharjah and Abu Dhabi in particular.

"I am so proud of my country," he says. "It's a good time to live here. I think we're embracing the changes while still retaining our old values."

Sameera Al Romaithi, Government official

As someone who holds a senior position within the Government of Abu Dhabi, Sameera Murshed Al Romaithi not only sees the changes that are taking place in the city, but has the opportunity to influence them. What's more, the 28-year-old, born to an Emirati father and a British mother, grew up as they were taking place around her.

"I've lived most of my life in Abu Dhabi and I believe we have a lot to celebrate in terms of what we've accomplished," she says. "It's not just the city. Look at what our leaders have done for the country. They're not just thinking about now - they're thinking about the next generation and the one after that."

She believes her generation has been brought up with a sense of hope about the future of the UAE.

"The late Sheikh Zayed - God rest his soul - created this spirit, the spirit of the union, and it was instilled in us as kids. We grew up with it and now we want to instill it in the next generation. We want to aim to be better and set a good example for the world."

In her opinion, however, the basic culture of the country remains the same. "I think the Emirati culture has embraced aspects of other cultures, but we still hold fast to our old traditions," Al Romaithi says.

She recalls previous National Days in Abu Dhabi. "I remember as a little girl, watching the parade from the stadium where the Abu Dhabi National Exhibition Centre is now. There were kids dressed in the national costume, soldiers parading and music playing and everyone was so happy," she smiles at the memory. "If we couldn't go to watch it, we'd sit together as a family around TV and feel so proud.

"It may sound corny, but for me, every day is National Day."