x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Identity debate looming for FNC

With the proportion of Emiratis set to fall, lawmakers may look at measures to protect the Arabic language and encourage more women to enter the workforce.

A political push to address the UAE's growing demographic imbalance could have the Federal National Council considering measures to protect the Arabic language, encourage more women to enter the workforce and even restrict the number of maids per household.

The imbalance, considered to be one of the most pressing issues facing the nation, is at the top of the agenda for the FNC's current session. Emiratis make up less than 20 per cent of the population of 4.48 million: 864,000 nationals compared with 3.62 million expatriates, according to the Ministry of Economy. And it is expected that the local population will grow by 3.2 per cent this year, less than half the 6.8 per cent the expatriate population is expected to grow.

The overall population is overwhelmingly male and from the Indian subcontinent. There are 3.08 million males, compared with 1.4 million females. The low birth rate and increased divorce rate among Emiratis compound the issue. Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed, President of the UAE and Ruler of Abu Dhabi, designated 2008 as the Year of National Identity. "I think the country is in deep trouble because of this demographic imbalance," said Dr Abdulkhaleq Abdullah, professor of political science at the UAE University in Al Ain. "It should recognise this."

Members of the FNC are due to debate the demographics issue. One member, Najla al Awadi, suggested several options to deal with the "obvious challenge" that threatens Emirati culture. "We have the highest percentage of female graduates in the Arab world, but not enough are entering the job market and they are only heading into specific sectors," she said. "We need to look at how to get them more integrated into the workforce in both the private and government sector."

The Government could promote education policies that would be devoted to better teaching children at young ages about their Emirati culture and heritage. And more can be done to create stronger families. "In this time and age people do not have a realistic view of what it means to be a husband and wife and what is required to create a healthy and understanding marriage," she said. Unnecessary jobs could be eliminated to reduce the number of unskilled labourers in the country.

"Earlier this year, a rule was brought in to abolish gas attendants but it is not being implemented. We need smart manufacturing and to cut out the menial work that we don't need." The number of maids also needs to be controlled, Ms Awadi said. "The reality is that the children are left with maids who are often from poor countries and educated badly," she said. "I think people are creatures of habit but we can adjust and learn. They will see it is much easier than they thought. Our grandmothers used to do everything themselves. We take too much for granted. Things are too readily available."

Another FNC member, Mohammed al Zaabi, from Sharjah, was not as concerned about having a workforce that is predominantly male and from the Indian subcontinent. "It is temporary labour here," he said. "Most of the workforce will leave when the construction boom ends. They are temporary workers. We cannot call them immigrants." However, he said, Emiratis do need to place a greater emphasis on their identity and culture because the country is vulnerable to the influence of more than 200 different nationalities.

"The way to do that is to protect our language," said Mr Zaabi. "For example, when you go to the US, you have to learn English. You are forced to learn and thus you are forced to learn about the culture through the language. "Here the problem is exacerbated by universities teaching in English. In China and Syria, they teach in their own languages at university and therefore they have protected their identity."

Whatever happens, the demographics issue is one that has become "bigger than the FNC", said Dr Abdullah, of Emirates University. "The country has become the second-biggest economy in the Arab world. We don't have the local human resources to sustain it, therefore we need everyone else to come in and help sustain it." Dr Abdullah does not believe in offering some form of citizenship to those who have contributed to the development of the nation.

"There is no magic wand," he said. "This needs to be seriously debated in public in the most transparent way possible." The FNC has been talking about the demographics issue yearly, coming up with recommendations nobody has paid much attention to. Dr Abdullah argues there needs to be major changes in the way the FNC functions, so its measures are binding. If the FNC were elected, and run in a more open manner, the demographics issue would become a "societal issue", one everyone was responsible for.

It was, however, "really brave and good to see that the President declared this year as a year of national identity"," Dr Abdullah said. "It is an indication that the problem has filtered all the way up to the highest levels." kattwood@thenational.ae