ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday May 4, 2008
Vol. 42 - No 49

Strangers at home

Amid Dubai's economic boom, the highly outnumbered native Arabs feel an identity crisis

By Hamza Hendawi

DUBAI (AP) - Along the creek that runs through the heart of old Dubai, hundreds of smartly dressed Indians waited in line barefoot to enter a Hindu temple on a recent weekend. Nearby were joggers, romantic couples, picnicking families -- but hardly any of Dubai's Muslim Arab citizens.

Across the waterway in the Deira district, thousands of young Asian workers were out on the streets, drinking tea, shopping or just chatting. Some were calling family back home, shouting into mobile phones in Hindi, Urdu, Pashtu and Dari. The only Arab presence was a pair of policemen cruising through in a patrol car.

Hundreds of thousands of foreign workers -- from taxi drivers, cooks and housemaids to doctors, bankers and judges -- have been imported to Dubai, mainly from South Asia, to run what is perhaps the world's fastest growing city. Amid this flood, Dubai's natives -- about 20 percent of the emirate's 1.2 million residents -- find their way of life threatened and often react by isolating themselves.

A group of Emarati girl students pass by as the western tourist enjoy the day at Bastakia historical district in Dubai. AP

They once lived on or close to the shores of the Gulf, which provided past generations with livelihoods from fishing or pearl diving. Now they mainly dwell in closed communities of luxury villas on the desert fringes of Dubai, bound by an unspoken pact not to sell or rent their homes to foreigners.

Where their old homes once stood are gleaming skyscrapers, shopping malls and fast food restaurants. The few traditional Arab houses that remain -- one-story, flat-roofed structures with interior courtyards -- are home these days to poor Asian workers, living six or seven to a room.

Arabic, the native tongue of Dubai's citizens, is another casualty, with English now the lingua franca for the estimated 200 nationalities living in the emirate. It has crept into official government correspondence, too, and become the de facto language of the private sector.

"We feel like strangers in our own country," said lawyer and human rights activist Mohammed al-Roken, whose calls for political reform and views on development have prompted authorities to ban him from writing in the press and from his university teaching post.

"We cannot safeguard our identity without raising our percentage of the population. The majority dictates the rules of the game even if the minority is the native residents," said al-Roken, who calls for longtime Arab Muslim residents to be naturalized as well as the children of Emirati women married to foreigners, who currently do not receive citizenship.

Al-Roken and others in the tiny Muslim Arab native population have been the chief beneficiaries of the the city-state's financial boom, but they also feel their identity and way of life are being submerged under Dubai's drive to become a global banking and business hub.

The cultural grumbling of Emirati citizens are just one downside amid the double-digit economic growth. More dramatically, poorly paid south Asian construction workers are showing signs of unrest, with strikes and protests over pay and living condition becoming more frequent.

In many ways, the two sides -- natives and foreigners -- are both victims and beneficiaries of the ambition of Dubai's ruler, Sheik Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, to transform Dubai."We want Dubai to be the world's number one city for commerce, tourism and services," Sheik Mohammed wrote in a book grandiosely entitled "My Vision."

His vision has turned the city-state into one of the most contradictory societies in the Middle East. It is multicultural with its immense population of non-citizens from around the world. It has religious and social freedoms unseen elsewhere in the conservative Gulf -- though the changes in society are not matched by political reforms.

A senior adviser to Sheik Mohammed, who agreed to discuss the sheik's views about the changes in society on the basis of anonymity, said the Dubai leader is aware of natives' fears but believes they are benefiting from the new wealth. "A lot of the benefit from change is fed back to the native population. Every Emirati has a chance to prosper in this environment," said the adviser.

Despite Dubai's spectacular growth, however, many people complain it has become a soulless place where everyone seems to be in transit. The building boom has turned the city into a massive construction site with virtually round-the-clock traffic congestion. Residents say the skyline changes whenever they return from a month or two away, and with the ubiquitous construction cranes and skyscrapers and the perpetual haze, parts of the city look like the scenes of faraway planets in the "Star Wars" movies.

Asian construction workers make dinner in their sharing kitchen in one of the labor camps in Al Qouz district in Dubai. AP

Abdul-Khaleq Abdullah, a political science lecturer and a native of Dubai, says his home city's phenomenal progress fills him with pride."But there is a deeply buried sentiment, it is not alienation, but rather fear that we may lose everything that we have built," he said. "This feeling comes from the fact that we are a small minority in a city that's full of foreigners. We are very scared."

Authorities make sure the benefits of citizenship keep Emiratis happy -- a cradle to the grave welfare that includes free education, health care and business and housing loans. They've also taken steps to show they care about preserving Dubai's Muslim and Arab identity.

The United Arab Emirates has declared 2008 "The Year of Identity." It sponsored a two-day conference on national identity earlier this month and is celebrating one of the country's traditional products by publishing an illustrated encyclopaedia of the date palm. And Dubai's government recently created an independent body to promote indigenous art and culture.

In other ways, too, Dubai seeks to remind everyone it's a Muslim state. Stores and restaurants close Friday mornings until after the noontime Muslim weekly prayers. In the Mall of the Emirates -- the largest in the Middle East -- the voice of a muezzin fills the building at the times of the five daily prayers.

In a show of respect, music in the mall's chic boutiques and trendy cafes is turned down or switched off altogether. Yet liberal and permissive ways that are frowned upon by the more conservative six other sheikdoms of the United Arab Emirates appear to prevail.

Prostitution, for example, is so widespread that many suspect that it operates with at least some degree of official consent. In one downtown bar, prostitutes cluster along ethnic lines, with women from former Soviet republics at one end, Chinese in the middle, and east Africans and Arabs on the far end.

The behavior and liberal dress code of many foreigners -- bikinis on the beach and shorts and tank tops out on the street -- are a source of concern to the native Arabs.

"Please wear respectful clothing, i.e. shoulders and knees covered," advise large stickers recently plastered on the mall's doors.
"No kissing or overt displays of affection," the stickers warn.

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