Why contact was broken
A doctor from Al Ain's Oasis Hospital talks to a Bedouin in a photograph taken during the 1960s. Gertrude Dyck / Oasis Hospital
Hot and dusty, the new arrival in town was keen to put his finger on the pulse of local culture.
Pulling into a popular coffee shop in Dubai, he approached a group of expatriate women enjoying a leisurely lunch.
Where, he asked, might he find some Emiratis? The startled women sipped thoughtfully on their lattes and knitted their brows together in collective bewilderment.
“I think they all left,” one said finally. “Oh no!” another corrected her brightly, in a flash of inspiration. “They all moved to Ras al Khaimah.”
The tale of Zvika Krieger’s initiation to Dubai as a Middle Eastern correspondent for Newsweek a few years ago is told with wry humour by Jane Bristol-Rhys, an associate anthropology professor at Zayed University.
But underlying the story is a worrying message: with so many expatriates living in the UAE, why are so few interested in getting to grips with local customs and meeting the native population?
Scroll back more than 50 years and Tim Hillyard, a senior representative for the British Petroleum Company, was the first expat to arrive in the country, accompanied by his wife Susan and their three-year-old daughter Deborah.
The late Czech journalist Wanda Jablonski, dubbed the “queen of the oil club” because of her knowledge of the industry, recalled accompanying the family on one of their many visits to Sheikh Shakhbut’s palace in 1957 when he was Ruler of Abu Dhabi.
Surrounded by armed guards and undaunted by the daggers in their hilts, the blue-eyed, flaxen-haired toddler Deborah trotted up first to the Sheikh and then each of his bodyguards in turn, extending a chubby hand with the greeting: “Assalam alaikum”.
Five years later Gertrude Dyck landed in the UAE on her first long-distance foray outside Canada. As a nurse, her only intention was to stay a year or so to help set up the UAE’s first hospital, the Oasis in Al Ain.
Little did she dream she would still be there 38 years later having developed a deep love for the country and its people. Within months she had become fluent in Arabic and familiar with the customs of the Bedouin she lived among, sharing their meals, rituals, festivities and sorrows.
So immersed was she in the local community, she was even given her own Arabic nickname, Doctura Latifa, meaning mercy.
“I feel a tremendous bond, having also experienced a little of the harsh experience that they knew and to have been with them through their growing pains,” she wrote in her 1995 book, The Oasis.
“I learned to know and value the country by getting to know the people personally, experiencing their hospitality, their vivacious spontaneity.
“I learned of their rich heritage – a heritage of culture, strength and perseverance – which sustained them when all the odds were against them ... Development brings comfort and facilities that can be appreciated by people from all over the world but invariably also creates barriers to the kind of closeness I experienced more than 30 years ago.”
Prophetic words indeed. For when 75-year-old Miss Dyck died at a Canadian retirement home last week, still pining for the Emirati life she had left behind out of necessity, it was not simply the tragic loss of a rare historian who lived through the drastic changes the UAE has undergone. Her death also marked the end of an era when those who chose to settle here felt obliged to integrate fully into the native community, learning the language and customs familiar to the nation’s original inhabitants.
An explosion in the expat population triggered by the construction and economic boom starting in the 1980s has meant the number of foreigners now dwarfs Emiratis by seven to one.
The UAE having become a global business centre, English is now predominantly spoken and the mere hint of having to communicate or process paperwork in the native tongue can leave some completely flummoxed – or at best, prompt rolled eyes.
Emirati and expatriate women meet to learn about each other as part of the Tawasol project. Delores Johnson / The National
Khulood al Atiyat, an Emirati events manager at the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding in Dubai, thinks housing and lifestyle are largely to blame for the lack of interest in a shared cultural experience.
The centre, opened in 1995, recognised that neighbours from different backgrounds had little knowledge of each other’s roots. Staff now take visitors on tours of the Jumeirah Mosque and hold regular breakfasts and lunches to explain Emirati society and traditions.
Ms al Atiyat said: “How people lived back then was very different to how they live now. Neighbourhoods were one entity and everyone knew who was living next door to them. It was more like one big family.
“It was very easy for expats to be part of local life, to meet UAE nationals and be friends with them.
“Now the population is different, the ratio of nationals to expats is much lower and there are those who have no respect for the local culture and do not understand it.
“Clusters of nationalities tend to stick together, be they South African, American or British. They think they can live the exact same lifestyle they had back home.”
All of which might smack of a “things ain’t what they used to be” philosophy, but Dr Bristol-Rhys thinks she has a point.
She arrived nine years ago, already fluent in Arabic after growing up in Egypt, but said it was rare to find truly integrated expats of the like of Ms Dyck and the Hillyards.
“Many of the expats who have lived here for years have never had a conversation with an Emirati,” she said.
“They just do not see them. When I tell people I teach Emiratis, they look at me in wonder as if I teach on an Indian reservation.”
She is convinced the segregation of communities began happening as far back as the late 1960s when Abu Dhabi started exporting oil and there was a “mad rush” to the UAE to tap into the black gold.
“This was a sleepy little backwater before,” she said. “Oil was a double- edged sword because it necessitated fast development and needed people who could extract and export it. The oil and construction workers and the bankers no longer needed Arabic as everyone spoke English.”
As houses went up, Emiratis moved away from the Abu Dhabi corniche into secluded villas while expats clustered in their own neighbourhoods.
“The segregation is not simply between expats and Emiratis but different groups of expats who do not interact,” said Dr Bristol-Rhys. “There are no obstacles, though, to being friends with Emiratis – it is as simple as starting a conversation in the grocery store line.
“There are some expats who make an effort but others whose focus is just to make money. That orients everything they do and they do not want to participate in any part of society.”
Alcohol and a growing bar culture among expats is a great divider, according to the professor. As expat social life increasingly revolves around five-star hotels and their bars and nightclubs, there is even less social interaction because Emiratis are unlikely to frequent those venues.
The academic believes the problem will probably get worse with the creation of developments such as Reem and Saadiyat islands.
“The expat population is growing exponentially and I think talk of not learning the language and customs is a smokescreen.
“I am concerned all these developments are going to be expat ghettos. Emiratis tend not to live in apartments if they can help it and many are asking themselves, exactly who are these developments for? They are watching what is happening very closely and wondering if all these buildings are going up, whose future is being secured?”
Ms al Atiyat added that there was growing anger and resentment among Emiratis witnessing a blatant disregard for local laws and culture. One notorious example was that of two Britons caught having sexual relations on a beach hours after meeting at a champagne brunch. Both Michelle Palmer and Vince Acors were jailed and deported in a sign of an increasingly hard line against offenders.
“When Emiratis see expats misbehaving, they are left asking why they do not try harder to learn what is acceptable,” Ms al Atiyat said.
Wael al Sayegh, a self-styled cultural consultant, can see both sides of the coin as an Emirati born in Edinburgh with a degree from Glasgow University in Scotland.
“The barriers have been put up on both sides,” he said. “Perhaps because they are here temporarily and the law does not encourage a long-term commitment to the country, expats can be very cliquey. There are those whose lives revolve around the country club on a Saturday and golf on a Sunday, and they get annoyed if they are reminded they are in the UAE.
“In the early days of oil exploration, people had to integrate. These days, they are more likely to be drawn to Dubai by pictures of people guzzling champagne on the beach, thanks to the travel industry.”
Because of the demographic imbalance, the onus was on expats to make the first move in seeking out and befriending Emiratis, he added.
Jocelyn Henderson, the widow of the late British diplomat Edward Henderson, has been living in Abu Dhabi since 1968 and agreed: “The biggest change here is the separation between expatriates and nationals that has occurred over the years.”
Some have put part of the blame on a fear of western influences corrupting young Emiratis, an issue that was aired at a national identity conference in Abu Dhabi last year. A YouGov survey earlier this year showed that many Emiratis felt their culture was under threat from the influx of expats, who admitted they knew little of local traditions.
And Ahmed al Mansoori, the director general of Watani, a government programme to promote national identity, has called for expats to make more effort to integrate: “It is natural that people will want to reach out to members of their own nationality ... but I believe there is a responsibility for a family living in the UAE to ensure their children learn Arabic to help them become a part of the community.”
There are attempts to bridge that divide and start a national conversation on the topic. This summer, three Emirati students from Zayed University brought expats together with UAE nationals to talk about their misconceptions of one another in a project called Tawasol.
While Emirati women said they were afraid to approach their foreign counterparts because they were discouraged from talking to strangers by their families, expats said they feared causing offence.
One of the scheme’s founders, Farah Abdul-Hameed, admitted: “Sometimes I feel like a stranger in my country but we can fix this – by going out for coffee [with different people] and making people know we exist.”
The newly formed Community Development Authority in Dubai was set up to tackle cultural differences between Emiratis and expats head-on.
Its director general, Maryam Matar, said that was the key to greater understanding between the city’s many diverse communities.
Aida al Busaidi, an Emirati TV presenter from the now defunct talk show Her Say, is behind another such attempt. Promise Of A Generation started as a living-room conversation and is now a forum of 70 people from diverse backgrounds discussing the pressing topics of the day such as the environment and sustainability.
Miss al Busaidi said: “Interaction from the 1980s onwards has been more difficult. Our debates are issue-based rather than relating to nationality or gender – we are, after all, one community and one society.”
Still, at a recent coffee morning for expats in Dubai, one of many held regularly, there was a notable lack of an ethnic mix in the 20 faces around the table, where the talk was of holidays, handbags and shoes.
A few yards from the gossiping women, a woman in an abaya sat alone, forlornly sipping an orange juice. It may be a while before anyone thinks to invite her to join in.