The most unfriendly country? No, just a country in change
In a recent article published by Forbes, the UAE was ranked as the least friendly country for expatriates in the world. The rankings were based on four criteria, including the ability to befriend locals, success in learning the local language, capacity for integration into the community, and ease in fitting into the new culture.
There are some questions about the statistical significance of the survey by HSBC, which queried 3,385 expatriates in 100 countries between May and July 2011. But more important is how the UAE has dealt with these criteria in a proactive and welcoming manner.
Start with the ability to befriend locals: first and foremost, because of the skewed demographics (about 10 per cent of the population is Emirati), getting to know the "locals" can be a tough task for any new expatriate. And in any country within a matter of days, an expatriate will find his or her countrymen, the familiar cuisine and hangout spot.
It is very easy for an expatriate to quickly fall into a comfort zone and go quite a while without actually interacting with an Emirati on a personal level. So I think the difficulty is related to the opportunity to meet people in the first place, rather than making friends.
The UAE is known for its hospitality, which stems from who we are as a people, from the days of the Bedouin, to households today and the lavish hotels across the country. Welcoming is second nature to us.
The second criteria is the ability to learn the language. The UAE can cater for most of the expatriate community because almost everyone can speak English. It wasn't until early in 2008 that Arabic was made the official language of the UAE.
The opportunity to learn the language is open to everyone, with some companies offering complimentary classes. But again, the issue is based on demographics: ask an expatriate who has lived here for several years why he or she hasn't learnt the language and, nine times out of 10, the answer is: "I never had to."
The third point is the capacity to integrate into the community. For any expatriate, moving to a new country and settling down is no easy task. In the UAE, however, authorities in partnership with the existing expatriate communities have taken steps to make this easier.
Most expatriate communities have set up their own social clubs and community centres that act as a point of first contact. These clubs offer an easy transition for new arrivals and the opportunity for a crash course in local customs.
And there are consultants such as Wael Al Sayegh, the founding director of the intercultural consultancy firm Alghaf, who has been doing a phenomenal job of bringing the UAE learning experience to expatriates' doorsteps. By teaching people the history and modern lifestyle of the country through the eyes of an Emirati, consultants enable expatriates to feel a greater sense of connection to the country and its people.
Last, but certainly not least, is the ease in which expatriates fit into the new culture. Cultural understanding, in my opinion, is the most sensitive topic because living in a certain way for most of your life, then having to adapt can be daunting. In all honesty, I think expatriates have a hard time fitting into UAE culture because the culture itself is constantly evolving.
In many ways, the country actually brings expatriates' cultures home: just think of all the Christmas decorations in the malls and hotels. Another example is the Holi festival of colours celebrated by the Indian community. The UAE has always embraced many cultures, giving expatriates the freedom to celebrate and enjoy the most precious festivities of their home countries.
But giving expatriates insights into where Emiratis come from is critical for a better understanding of the country. This is where entities such as the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage and the Dubai Culture and Arts Authority come in.
When events such as the Al Dhafra Camel Festival and the Liwa Date Festival are held, they are not just opportunities for the local community, but as importantly for expatriates to learn who we are as a people.
Thinking about how so many nationalities are able to live in harmony within the UAE, and how so many expatriates end up calling it home, it worries me that someone would rank the UAE as unfriendly. We are not perfect, but we have a lot more to than a "last place" offering, and we look forward to proving it: welcome to the United Arab Emirates.
Khalid Al Ameri is an associate at an Abu Dhabi development company