Illustration: Luis Vazquez/Gulf News
Who wants to be an Emirati?
By Mishaal Al Gergawi, Special to Gulf News
Last week I wrote an article in which I discussed why long-term and committed residents should be granted long-term residency in the Emirates. Some of the comments I received used specific words such as citizenship. I find the confusion between residency and citizenship highly problematic and so a clear distinction is in order.
The United Arab Emirates is a young country, but it is a collection of much older principalities and emirates. These individual emirates have attracted a consistent flow of migration from Yemen, Najd, Balochistan, southern Iran, Hyderabad and eastern Africa. While every migration brought with it cultural specifics, there remained a cohesive umbrella that absorbed some facets of the migrating cultures but still defined what it meant to be what came to be known as Emirati.
I've always been fascinated by Jeddah - it is a very interesting social experiment. Due to the pilgrimage journeys, the people of Jeddah come from diverse parts of the world: Central Asia, the Levant, Egypt, east Africa, Makkah, Yemen and Turkey, among others. However, when you visit Jeddah you feel that there is a unifying theme for the city, a culture that unites all. This culture is that of Jeddah - they call it 'Hejazi'. Granted, the migration trends to Jeddah were not as bottlenecked as those to Dubai and other cities in the UAE. Also, there was always a strong absorbing population in Jeddah, unlike in the UAE. However, it still makes for an interesting benchmark.
As a modern federal union, the UAE proudly hosts many people from different parts of the world. Many of these people have started families here and, more importantly, their children have developed strong ties to the UAE - ties so strong that they feel more at home in Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Sharjah than they do in Beirut, Tehran or New Delhi. What frustrates many of these Dubaians, Abu Dhabians or Sharjahians is that their identity is sometimes included in the same category as what we call 'recent expats'. And so they have started wondering about the value of their existence here and the measure of their belonging to their respective cities.
This and the examples of other countries (such as the UK, the US and Canada) has led to calls for citizenship. Here is my take on this. As an Emirati, I support naturalising any person who has spent a considerable amount of time in the UAE (five, 10, 15 years - someone qualified must set the right number) in which they have shown two qualities: first, the ability to contribute positively to the growth and development of the UAE; second, and more importantly, they must have shown love and respect for Emirati culture and embraced this culture in their daily life.
What is Emirati culture, you ask? It includes the food we eat, the way we dress, the way we wed, the way we mourn our dead, how we spend our Ramadan and how we celebrate our Eids. It also includes our music, poetry and sports. Some have said to me that isn't culture - I told them that is our culture.
Some have said it is inconceivable that the UAE will not grant citizenship to people who spend 10 years here when it takes much less than that to be naturalised in the UK, US and Canada. Here is what I think of that argument. In the case of the UK, it is a former colonial power and so it is the ironic destiny of the colonisers to be colonised by the subjects of their colonies, quid pro quo and c'est la vie. We haven't really colonised anyone but we have absorbed migrants from those regions that we governed for a short while.
In the case of the US and Canada, there is a more fundamental issue there. In those countries, whoever has the authority to grant citizenship to immigrants is fundamentally an immigrant too. Basically, there are no significant numbers of natives in these countries, let alone any in a position of power. And so the moral high ground that distinguishes those who have descended on a land and those who have been there for a significant amount of time is non-existent. Furthermore, these countries often provide citizenship mainly for political reasons (political asylum), economic reasons (attracting funds) and social reasons (refugee migration). The UAE does provide assistance and support to those who fall under the above mentioned categories in varying ways, however citizenship should be granted based on cultural reasons only.
Why, you ask? Well, because we would like to preserve as much of our culture as possible. I do not want to find one day that many elements that distinguished the UAE have just evaporated under the guise of globalisation - our differences make us interesting. Just to be clear, I will reiterate my position: I support naturalising anyone from anywhere in the world as long as they embrace our culture. This does not, of course, discount the contributions that the backgrounds of those who embrace our culture will bring to the table - in fact, we welcome them. But as in the example of Jeddah, I'd like the UAE to maintain a local context.