The last time Ali saw his brother was when he was 11 years old. Abdul Rahman was one of the 4,000 troops who proudly went to push back Saddam's forces from Kuwait as part of the coalition forces during the first Gulf War in 1991. Unlike his comrades, Abdul Rahman never made it back to the UAE; he was killed in combat, one of the half dozen UAE martyrs for freedom. "I never had a chance to say goodbye," said Ali, who talks fondly about the war hero. He decided from a young age to follow in the footsteps of his elder brother and become a fighter pilot in order to serve his country like Abdul Rahman had done.Honour, pride and patriotism ran though his veins. "You need not become a fighter pilot to serve your country," Ali's father, an avid traveller who took his son to dozens of countries said. "There are other equally valuable services you can perform for your country, such as hospitality," and explained to him the importance of representing our Emirati and Arab culture in the best of forms.
And this is how Embrace Arabia was founded in Abu Dhabi. A cultural awareness firm staffed by UAE nationals whose mission is to foster a deeper understanding of the indigenous culture among the several million expatriates who call the Emirates their home and the equal number of tourists who visit.
Ali also recently began starring in his own show on a local satellite television channel in which "the culture of the UAE is explained to a potential audience of 90 million viewers". "People ask me all sorts questions," jested Ali before ending his presentation, "such as what Emirati men wear under their flowing kandooras?"
A visiting British journalist told me recently about a group of English women whom she'd met in an expatriate coffee shop a few steps from the magnificent Jumeirah Mosque. "They've been here for an entire year, and they've never met an Emirati," she said. "Do they want to?" was my initial reaction.
Last Ramadan, the Young Arab Leaders organisation hosted a joint iftar with the Dubai-based British Business Group, in which Abdallah Essa Al-Serkal, Chairman of the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding, presented their activities.
Ironically, Abdallah started by boasting: "We take 2,000 tourists on a tour of the Jumeirah Mosque every day," adding, "we also place individuals who sign up for our programmes with generous Emirati families who have volunteered to host them for lunch or dinner" (needless to say such programmes are free of charge).
"We explain to them why men wear white and women wear black. We tell them that some issues are religious and others cultural," said Abdallah, announcing that, "in Ramadan the centre serves real Emirati iftar, my mom's own cooking in fact, all for free."
Abdallah comes from one of the prominent families of Dubai, a merchant family whose business was founded in 1947 and whose current interests span various fields such as distribution of tyres, hotel management and engineering services.
"I don't get paid for this; it's not my full time job so please forgive me if I make mistakes," he smilingly said to a cheering crowd. Abdallah closed by saying: "This is the same presentation we gave President Bush when he visited our centre recently."
Wael Al Sayegh begins his weekly broadcasts on a local English language FM station with the customary "Salaam Alaikom" before giving listeners a much needed Emirati perspective on local and international developments. For years, this well spoken young Emirati has been offering his services via his Dubai-based Al Ghaf Cultural Consultants to the UAE expatriate community as well as to businesses who want to make sure that their employees have a full understanding of the culture they live in.
"Why did you choose the Al Ghaf tree as a name?" I recall asking him two years ago. "Because it is a symbol rooted in the UAE culture," he replied.
What is interesting is that not only does Wael offer his services to multinational giants such as Pepsi Co and General Motors, but UAE-based companies such as Al Dar, the Dubai World Trade Centre and the Dubai International Financial Centre have also called upon him to deliver his cross-cultural insights to their staff.
As Abu Dhabi and Dubai continue to gain importance in the world economy there will be more and more expatriates who decide to call this country home. The chances of meeting Emiratis will therefore also shrink due to the falling percentages we find ourselves representing in the country. In the last official count we stood at 20 per cent of the population.
The real question some expatriates need to ask isn't "How come we never meet Emiratis?" it is "Do we want to?" It's true that the Emirati population is minuscule, but we are always accessible – just ask Ali, Abdallah, Wael and President Bush.
This article first appeared in TheNational.ae on Sunday Oct. 5th 2008