In Shelter, a converted warehouse in Dubai’s Al Quoz industrial district, a young Emirati stood up in front of a crowd of 200 nationals and expatriates. They gathered to hear him speak about his vision for Dubai as it emerges from the effects of the global financial crisis.
Mishaal al Gergawi, the speaker, who also happens to be a local government official, stood in front of the crowd sporting a black blazer and blue jeans – not the kandoura and ghutra that many expatriates typically associate with Emiratis. While his clothes weren’t representative of the country, his ideas and values were very much reflective of popular sentiments.
The National’s Tom Gara covered Mapping Dubai, a talk that grappled with various issues ranging from labour reform to accountability within government. One issue that Mr al Gergawi mentioned that continues to be misrepresented within the local Arabic press and among nationals is that of residency.
Though a report carried in an Arabic language news service stated that Mr al Gergawi had called for giving citizenship to second and third generation expatriates living in the country in his talk, that was simply not true. I know this because I was there. What was called for and debated was a long-term residency programme for expatriates so they would no longer have the status of transient interlopers, but instead be acknowledged as stakeholders.
In fact, The National has reported other efforts in this direction: the Abu Dhabi Police is initiating a pilot programme whereby it would start recruiting non-Emiratis into its community police force to deal with issues such as antisocial behaviour, dangerous driving and crime prevention. With this, the Abu Dhabi Police have taken the first step into converting the expatriate population into stakeholders.
A misrepresentation of what Mr al Gergawi has said has happened before. Recently a friend of mine told me that he didn’t appreciate “your calls” – as in Mr al Gergawi’s and my own – for granting citizenship to foreigners in the country. Neither of us has ever proposed this. When I asked my friend if he read Mr Gergawi’s article his answer was “no, but someone told me”.
Many locals know expatriates who have been here from as far back as the 1970s. Today many of them are approaching retirement age and are being asked to leave. Many of these individuals contributed to the UAE’s formation; they, along with their Emirati colleagues, were the building blocks of this country.
In fact, my very own business partner arrived in the UAE in 1969 on a British issued visa and has been here ever since. He went on to serve in the UAE army for nearly two decades before starting his own enterprise.
It is not a secret that many Emiratis, including myself, believe that the vast majority of expats would not qualify to be nationals. They don’t speak in our accent, let alone in our language. They don’t dress like us or celebrate according to our customs. The thought of granting them UAE passports doesn’t sit easily at all with us. On the other hand there are expatriates who have served this country well, raised their families here and though they didn’t adopt our customs and traditions, they respected them.
It must be made crystal clear that this residency carries no promise of citizenship whatsoever and is granted completely upon the discretion of the federal government. This could never be a local government initiative as some have promised. It would have been beyond their scope to grant long term residency to people who purchase apartments. The difficulties of such an effort came undone when the financial crisis hit the country. Long-term residency should also be introduced in a manner so that only the right people qualify for it.
But without a long-term residency programme, people will continue to view Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Sharjah and their sister emirates as a short-term investment where they can make a quick buck and move on. I would prefer that those who worked and saved money in the UAE in their productive years could enjoy this wealth and spend it in the country, for instance, in the local malls, using our airports and eating in our restaurants, when they retire. These individuals after all are familiar with UAE customs and, if they returned home, they wouldn’t rant about their problems with this country.
Like Mishaal al Gergawi’s attire during his talk, long-term expatriates may not appear to be representative of the country, but as the Abu Dhabi Police showed with their efforts, their values are not always so different from ours after all.
*This article first appeared in The National on Sunday 14th February 2010