First with Financial Comment from Arabia

Preparing nationals for multi-national UAE society

with 2 comments

Why is it that articles reminding us that ‘fostering national identity is vital’ among UAE nationals are so annoying? Is it just because they are so often written in a patronizing tone by non-nationals? Or is it because a seemingly obvious good is actually bad advice?

For example, the proponents argue that young UAE nationals should be brought up to speak Arabic as their first and principal language. Does that not put them at an immediate disadvantage in the multi-cultural society into which they have been lucky enough to be born?

And let us not forget that the multi-cultural, not to say multi-national approach to the development of the UAE as a country has brought a standard-of-living for all its residents way beyond anything that nationals would have achieved on their own.

National pride

And nationals can be proud of having taken that approach. They got it right. Other nations did not, and look at them struggling pathetically to feed and clothe their populations now.

It is only right to educate nationals to achieve within the society that has been created in the UAE. It does them a disservice to prepare them for an Arabic speaking society that no longer exists in practice, except in the government. Then they can only ever be public officials.

Interpreting the latest UAE population data produces an astonishing conclusion that the nationals do not actually number many more than 400,000 out of a population of six million (see this article). Data first published in 2005 has been shown to overstate the true population of nationals by a factor of two.

With only around seven per cent of the UAE population actually Emirati it is clear that the UAE is the world’s most multi-national and multi-cultural society. If the original inhabitants want to succeed in such a society they need to be equipped with the skills necessary to succeed, not kept like relics in a museum.

That is not to say that Arabic is not a very useful skill for anybody living in the Middle East. But actually English is more useful in the UAE, as that is what the vast majority of the inhabitants speak.

Cultural traditions

The same point can be made with regard to cultural traditions. How relevant are the conservative social practices of the past to living in a modern, multi-cultural society? It is not nice to shock elders. But times do move on, and the UAE is a very different place to how it was 10, 20 or 30 years ago.

However, these are the problems of success. The founding fathers of the UAE got their approach to foreign nationals right, and used their labor and education to build an incredible success story. Their modern forebears will probably want to move forward and not backwards.

Going forward it is a matter of accommodating what has been achieved, and training young nationals to meet the challenges of the modern UAE. Nobody should be trying to turn the clock back to some distant golden age that was actually a nightmare for most of those unfortunate enough to live at that time.


Written by Peter Cooper

December 24, 2009 at 8:29 am

2 Responses

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  1. Unless the rulers allow “Singapore style” permanent residence at an even lower cost, the divide between the visitor and the nationals will remain rather than blossom into a true multicultural society. The biggest benefits for Dubai are that expat individuals and families will want to call this home, and fill up the plethora of housing that will continue to appear. Even families living in other less liberal parts of the region may house their families in Dubai and communte weekends or monthly to be with them.
    This is the wand that Dubai has not used as yet and its really ripe for this to not be held out much longer.


    December 24, 2009 at 3:52 pm

  2. Great article Peter.
    I agree this is a challenge for the UAE but I too find the “hearkening back to the good old days” and xenophobia thinly disguised as national pride either wishful/wistful thinking or an attempt to stir discontent.


    December 24, 2009 at 9:16 am

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