Saturday, May 02, 2009

How can expatriates play a meaningful part in the UAE?

Whenever we discuss about the idea of returning home to Malaysia, my youngest kid will oppose and protest vehemently. Muhaimin loves the UAE so much that he will opt to stay in a hostel to study here. He loves his current school and begs me not to transfer him to any other 'better' schools.
Muhaimin has several circles of friends, school mates of various nationalities (south asians, arabs, western and south east asians), neighbour kids (all Emiratis - well, by sizing their villas and number of luxury cars - mostly millionaires' kids) and Malaysian kids who have been his growing together close friends.
For most expats, working here is like an extended holiday. For me sometimes, like extended student days with more 'biasiswa' and fun as well as time with family.

We have extended friends from various nationalities and of course Emiratis.

Expatriates are a key part of the UAE’s social fabric, but should make more of an effort to integrate into the community.
When people move here it is not just for employment or to become wealthy, they are attracted to Emirati cultural traits such as hospitality and generosity.
They feel that they can make this their home.
It is natural that people will want to reach out to members of their own nationality, but the UAE authority's objective is to provide opportunities for expats to learn about local culture, break down stereotypes and integrate with the broader community.

Finding an expat role in the UAE

When asked periodically why she still thinks of England as home, despite living here for half her life, my six-year old’s answer is unvarying. “Grandma lives there, and I prefer England because, when it rains, we can jump in the puddles.” But life in Dubai is pretty dandy too.

She’s enthusiastic about learning Arabic at school, quick to spot a camel, keen on henna tattoos and loved every minute of the National Day celebrations last December. A clear directive as to how pupils should dress is issued and, for an afternoon, more than a thousand children watch traditional dances, admire camels, ferry cups of coffee and dates to attending parents and wave flags.

In marked contrast, on international day our household is racked with indecision: what exactly is British, or more precisely in our case English, national dress? The tracksuit? The football strip? The costume of the much-maligned Morris dancer?

While I’m struggling with how best to shape my three daughters’ notion of their own national culture while simultaneously wishing for them to benefit fully from the experience of living among a multi-ethnic community, they appear to slip easily between cultures, picking and choosing elements that appeal, as though before the pick-and-mix stand of a sweet shop.

As such, the eldest would be more than suitable to act as ambassador for the Watani organisation’s drive to promote greater understanding of local Emirati culture. The government body is keen for expatriates to try harder at integration by learning the language, appreciating the local culture more and mixing with Emiratis. The director general of Watani, Ahmed al Mansori, says in an interview in this paper today that while multiculturalism is one of the nation’s great strengths, individuals who come here to live have a duty to learn more about their new home and engage with their hosts.

But while this all comes quite naturally to my daughter, she might run into problems persuading the adult expatriate population of the advantages of meaningful engagement.

I first lived in Dubai from 2000 for two years, trailing a journalist partner. I’d travelled extensively throughout the Middle East and North Africa, visiting mosques, castles, palaces and museums, enthralled by cultures very different from the one with which I was familiar. I found rather less to do in the UAE, apart from shopping, but I had a good reason to travel throughout the UAE, in the name of researching a guidebook. At weekends I camped in the mountains of Ras al Khaimah before a day of arduous rock-climbing, swam with sharks around Snoopy Island in Fujairah, failed to make sense of the road network in Abu Dhabi, trawled for souvenirs in Ajman, visited Sharjah’s souks and confounded friends with my unabated enthusiasm for the museum in Umm al Qaiwain.

I took lessons at the Arabic Language Centre in Dubai, and though conversational opportunities were limited to the classroom, and chatting to the cats that congregated outside our villa, who were less than responsive, I made good progress over two years. Part-time I worked for a local English-language daily writing a supposedly humorous column and weekly book review, exercising a measure of self-censorship in order not to cause offence to Emirati sensibilities while never being sure exactly what distinguished them from those peculiar to other Arab or Muslim countries.

The two years felt like an extended holiday, a sort of suspended animation from real life. I had no intention of settling here and raising children. It was neither home, nor was it foreign enough to demand assimilation. When I left, married and six-months’ pregnant, it was because I was bored of the sun, the ease, the emptiness and the monotony; and I wanted keenly to have my first baby at home, in England.

When I returned to the Gulf in August 2006 it was unwillingly, in the wake of a husband, as a mother to two daughters. The combination of a monthly council bill, yet another wet summer, two screaming children in a small London flat, a fatal stabbing minutes from where we lived, and the lure of reassuming a tax-free existence in the sun was all too powerful, despite some misgivings.

Moreover, the implicit liberation from any concept of civic responsibility was appealing. Potholed roads? Not my problem, not my council tax. Poor state schools? We don’t have to pay to improve them.

But then, of course, without civic responsibility, the points of engagement between individuals and the state are limited and the dynamic of communication is entirely top-down. While I wouldn’t argue either for representative political pluralism or suggest that foreign political systems or reforms are needed, what occurs is that the lack of representation or taxation numbs the expatriate population, curtails engagement with the state, diminishes intellectual and social contact with the indigenous population, and reinforces a sense of alienation.

The social separation here is obvious. It starts upon arrival in the country with most newcomers instinctively seeking out compatriots when confronted by the unknown.

And just as the tools of identity construction (family, geography of origin, religion, philosophy, language, education) enforce this, so it is unsurprising that the organic institutions of civil society will reflect it. To a greater or lesser extent they cluster around national or ethnic cores.

If you allow it, life in the Emirates can be an exercise in unmitigated selfishness. Most are drawn here to make money to send back home to sustain an absent family, and an alien economy. For those who can afford to enjoy the perks, life here can be as superficial as you please.

The wealthier expatriate can cream off the benefits of a relatively easy existence in an essentially safe, clean, tolerant country.

The indigenous culture can seem under seige in a country where the local population is so outnumbered by expatriates. As a result, the denominators bridging the different racial or national groups attracted here are much less likely to be Emirati. Due to the cultural, economic and, to a certain extent, political imperialism of the West, the shared reference points between different ethnic groups are likely to be western. Satellites beam CNN and BBC on to the television, newspapers are printed in English, western brands find a ready market in malls embellished with the more obvious symbols of Emirati heritage – wind-towers, coffee pots and camels.

You need never learn a word of Arabic to live comfortably here, have only the most basic knowledge of the five pillars of Islam, buy all the foreign food imports that are familiar from home (wherever that may be), choose from a range of curricula for your child’s education, and fail to address any of the fundamental problems underpinning a society comprising various discrete ethnic groupings. Multiculturalism is definitely one of the UAE’s attractions but inevitably it has diluted local culture.

And, as Facebook, Twitter, Second Life and their ilk allow all of us to live in one place while existing in many, our physical sense of place is increasingly becoming replaced by a psychic one.

As temporary visitors, whether short or long-term, expatriates have no vested interest in the country: those who have chosen to make their lives here, to settle, invest in property, build a business, lose their work residency visa on redundancy or retirement. The expatriate feels no incentive, economically, socially or culturally, to integrate. Our profits line our own pockets, and when the job is done or the market slumps, we can move on. In our wake, the Emiratis continue trying to negotiate an identity that takes into account the influences of both West and East.

There seems to be no lack of understanding among most expatriates as to how the UAE has evolved thus far: the question is, how does it envisage its future and how can we expatriates play a meaningful part in that?

Claudia Pugh-Thomas is a journalist who lives in Dubai with her husband and three children

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