Tuesday, 30 March 2010
Emiratis get tetchy with expats in the UAE
Source: The Telegraph 29 March 2010
Photo: Iconotec Stock Photography
The United Arab Emirates, and Dubai in particular, has undergone breakneck development in recent decades, attracting foreign money and foreign visitors - in their billions and millions respectively. But such progress also has its price.
"We have become a minority. Our traditions are threatened and Arabic is no longer a first language," says Ibtisam al-Ketbi, a sociology professor at the United Arab Emirates University.
"We are surrounded by foreigners, and live in constant fear for our children because of the spread of drugs and a rise in crime rates," she adds, echoing a sentiment felt by many "nationals," as they are commonly called.
The recent case of a British couple sentenced to a month in prison after an Emirati mother complained that they were kissing in a Dubai restaurant highlights a growing unease among a traditionally conservative local population.
The two 20-somethings were also accused of consuming alcohol, a fact they acknowledged, but said in their defence that they had only kissed on the cheek.
Now they have had their passports confiscated and have to wait as their case makes its way through the appeals procedure. They should find out in April whether their conviction has been upheld or they are free to leave.
It is understandable that many people in the UAE feel they are being swamped.
Before the 1968 oil boom, nationals made up some 62 per cent of the federation's population but now account for just 16.5 per cent of an estimated population of six million, officials say.
In Dubai, the disparities are even greater. Emiratis make up only around five per cent of the two million residents, estimates Chris Davidson, author of a book called Dubai: The Vulnerability of Success.
"Many nationals now contend that they feel unwelcome in certain parts of the city and often complain that restaurant and hotel managers discriminate against national dress," writes Davidson.
In Dubai, Emiratis entrench themselves in neighbourhoods on the outskirts of the city in order not to have to mingle more than necessary with foreigners, whose customs differ widely from their own.
"We are practically living in reservations, and if this abnormal growth continues at the current rate, in 20 years' time we'll end up like the American Indians," Ketbi says.
"We were undergoing natural development until the property boom came along in the past 10 years, and in the attempt to encourage foreign investment, the city became open to everything, including alcohol and prostitution."
On radio talk shows, Emiratis often complain of seeing scantily clad foreigners in public parks and shopping malls, and express concern about how easy it is to buy alcohol.
Special permits are required for restaurants and clubs to serve alcohol, and individuals need a permit from the government. But alcohol is still available in almost all hotels and in many restaurants.
Foreigners are required to be modestly dressed, but in reality this provision is neither observed nor enforced.
Nightclubs in Dubai can compare to those in major cities around the world, alcohol flows freely at sporting events and restrictions on women's clothing are almost non-existent.
The police do sometimes intervene, however, as they did in the case of a British couple arrested in 2008 accused of having sex on a public beach - a story that made headlines across the globe.
Michelle Palmer, a British expat, and Vince Acors, a tourist, were each given a three-month suspended sentence, fined and ordered to be deported.
The Britons denied having sex in public and public indecency, but admitted to being under the influence of alcohol when they were caught on Dubai's Jumeirah public beach.
Their case drew unwanted attention to what has been a fine balancing act of preserving tradition while also allowing in outside influences that can quickly come into open conflict with an ancient and proud culture.
"Emiratis are starting to lose much of their identity, and the presence of so many expats leads to unacceptable behaviour that does not conform to our traditions," said Abdel Khalek Abdullah, an Emirati writer and academic.
"What arouses UAE concern is the massive influx of foreigners due to very rapid economic growth. If officials do not take bold steps, the social costs of this frantic economic development will be much greater than any economic benefits."
Abdullah thinks that "the government must review its development strategy and reduce the proportion of its ambitious growth," which may have slowed in Dubai today but is still rampant in the UAE capital, Abu Dhabi.
According to Davidson, the worldwide economic crisis has caused anger over foreigners' customs and behaviour to be more widely expressed.
"The resentment nationals feel about foreigners is becoming more public," he believes. "Two or three years ago, no one really cared."