My friend is Iranian. My friend was born in Oklahoma. With her family, my friend moved to the UAE and settled in Jumeirah, Dubai when she was three years old. She left for her undergraduate studies and came back and set up arguably the most successful gallery in the UAE. My friend is Sunny Rahbar. Sunny doesn’t know her way around Tehran and does not have a favourite coffee shop in Oklahoma; most of her memories are rooted here in the UAE.
I am writing about Sunny because she and I have discussed – and occasionally argued – for the last two years about how to define her relationship to the Emirates. Sunny does not exactly live what one would characterise as an Emirati life, though she does celebrate and mourn most of what Emiratis celebrate and mourn. She has not applied for an Emirati passport – though she’s known no home other than Dubai for more than 27 years – because she doesn’t feel she is an Emirati. I agree with her, Sunny is not an Emirati.
However, she is not one of those who packed her bags and took a one-way ticket to glitzy Dubai because she had heard of high-flying packages and a fabulous life. Sunny was here when the Burj Al Arab and Madinat Jumeirah were the Chicago Beach Hotel, and the Burj Dubai development was a military base – and that’s how the Defence Roundabout got its name, remember? Sunny was here when foreigners couldn’t buy land, when Deira had the best restaurants and Sheikh Zayed road was a two-way street. What I’m trying to say is, Sunny has been here for a long time.
Sunny is not a novelty because of this – though she is because of her contribution to the arts scene in the UAE – there are many others like her. Children who grew up here, holding on to aspects of their own ethnic identity, fused with their own ideals yet acquiring many beautiful and warm values from living in the UAE and among the Emirati people. They are unique but often feel themselves to be caught on a triangular fence; I call them "Dubaians".
There are also Abu Dhabians and Sharjahians but probably fewer of such folk as you go up through the remaining northern Emirates. How do all these Dubaians and others relate to their cities? How do they differentiate themselves from the people who arrived after the oil and real estate boom? They must still renew their visas and unless they do significantly well enough to afford to buy freehold real estate or own their business, they must leave at the age of 65.
Where will Sunny go when she’s 65? To Iran, where she will be looked at as exactly that, a Dubaian? Or to Oklahoma? Or New York or London? Of course she knows people there, but so do I. I’m not 65 yet but I think I’d like to die where I grew up. I’d like die at home – and home is where the heart is. But there is always a middle ground. We can always meet in between the crowds at the edges and I feel that a long-term residency of some form might be just enough to bridge that gap.
As Emiratis, we do appreciate the contributions of long term expatriates without a doubt; but perhaps our vision has been clouded by a justifiable fear of calls for the mass nationalisation of the incomers. This has made it difficult for us to tell our Abudhabians, Dubaians and their northern counterparts that we are happy they settled down here, shared their dreams with us and bought into ours. Nevertheless, it is such mezzanine solutions that may prove to be the most effective tools in preserving the delicate fabric of the UAE’s society in an even stronger fashion while still reinforcing the definition of national identity in a clear and cohesive form. It is a "thank you", it is an "I love you, too"; it is an appreciation that we share the same memories, hopes and struggles, not just traffic and 45 degree summers. It is a unity built upon a dream to create an oasis of dialogue and peace among a desert that may not always listen without a blast coming first.
We long for coexistence and exchange of thought, so let’s allow those people, our brothers and sisters, fathers and mothers, lovers and companions, to belong a little more than they thought they could.
Mishaal Al Gergawi is a graduate of the American University in Dubai and the CERAM European School of Business