“Where are all the Emiratis?” you might ask as I did, when we came to live in Dubai.
The reality is there are few in a city that is populated almost entirely by foreigners. Emiratis have shrunk proportionately as the expat population has grown. They are now 10 to 12% of the entire Dubai population, which was estimated to be 1.59 million in 2008.
“I’m afraid we are building towers but losing the Emirates,” said the Dubai Police Chief in 2008 as he echoed the woes of a decreasing local population. The rapid growth of the foreign population in Dubai is a result of government efforts to diversify the economy and because of dwindling oil reserves.
It was Sheikh Rashid, a former ruler of Dubai, who envisioned turning a quiet village of pearl divers, fishermen, and traders on the Arabian Gulf, into a world destination. In 1959, he borrowed money from Kuwait to widen and deepen the creek that runs through the city and make it a large port and commercial hub. Workers from all over the world arrived to build the Dubai. Because most of the oil discovered in 1966 was in neighboring Abu Dhabi, Dubai looked for other sources of revenue. After the formation of the United Arab Emirates in 1971, Dubai became known as the entrepreneurial city and grew into a world financial center, a real estate “mecca”, and the ultimate tourist destination that it is today.
Dubai is known as the city of superlatives. It boasts the biggest, tallest, newest, most expensive, bold and futuristic skyscrapers and developments in the world. All of this has come about because of the expertise and labor of people from more than 200 cultures who live and
work here. Professionals, tradesmen, and laborers form a spectrum from rich to poor, hard working to frivolous. Living in such a global environment is stimulating, as I tune my ear to English spoken with many different accents, and interact with people all around me living their daily lives according to their own customs. For example, a British person will respect a queue while an Egyptian or an Indian has no idea that one should line up or take turns. A Filipino will greet me with “Hello m’am” and a smile while an Emirati will walk right past
me with no eye contact.
Looking beyond the modern buildings, Emirati locals stand apart from others because they wear their national dress. Men in white crisp gowns called kanduras, congregate in public more often than women, who wear long flowing black cloaks (abayas) with black headscarves (sheylas). Emiratis are not hidden, but they do live in villas behind high walls, travel in cars with dark tinted windows, and are aloof. While some hold jobs in the public and private sectors, especially in schools and government offices, they do not work in shops, restaurants, construction, or even sell things on the street. These are jobs that have always been done by foreigners. Because Emiratis keep to themselves, it is rare for an expat to have an Emirati friend, or be invited into an Emirati home.
The local population has had to adapt to a constantly shifting landscape in a short amount of time. I have viewed some of the changes through the eyes of my students at Zayed University. For example, one afternoon I was having a conversation with 20-year old Asma.
“My mother can’t read or write. She reads only the Quran, but I know it’s memorized.” She went on to tell me, “Most of my classmates’ mothers are the same. They married and stayed home to have children. There were no schools.” Asma is a second year student at Zayed University. She confided wistfully, “My mother does not understand anything I study at the university. I cannot talk to my mother about anything.”
Treading on unfamiliar ground, young Emiratis are finding their way in an environment different from the one their parents grew up in. According to the government sponsored UAE Interact web site, projections for 2020 show there will be a large increase in the under 40 (years old) Emirati population. Now Emiratis are wrestling with the question of who will be left in 2020 to remember what it used to be like.
The UAE government declared the Year of National Identity in 2008 and passed a law requiring “ Arabic be used as the official language in all correspondence of all federal authorities and
establishments in the country.” However, English is the language young Emiratis are embracing because it opens the door to popular Western culture. Dr. Hanif Hassan, Minister of Education reiterated, “We want students to graduate who are fluent both in Arabic and English.” More effort is going into publishing books for children in Arabic and making sure young people maintain their confidence and ability in being able to read and write in their native language.
Now there is a new focus on teaching students about their own culture. For example, UAE University offers classes in Emirati traditions as part of the regular curriculum. ‘We have different traditions now, like we email and text each other, but it is important to learn as much about our heritage as we can and to continue our traditions in our own way,” said Shamsa Shamsi, a 24-year old UAE University student.
Ironically, a respite for Emiratis may have come in 2009, with the economic global crisis affecting Dubai and forcing the cancellation of development projects. Dubai was the city where people speculated in real estate as if it were the national sport. Now expats are losing their jobs and leaving the country. At the same time, in February 2009, the federal government of the U.A.E. quickly passed a law protecting locals from being laid off from jobs.
The global economic crisis could be a temporary break for Emiratis. A chance to catch their breath, as building projects are put on hold and the influx of foreigners slows down. No one knows what the outcome will be except that Emiratis will remain a minority in their own country. However with strong support from the government and the ruling sheikhs, and a resilient population of educated young people who have known nothing but change, they will be ready for the future.