Emiratis have always been proud of the role that expatriates play in our young and still developing society. Even before the federation was founded in 1971, expatriates from both East and West who called this region home were, and continue to be, welcomed by a grateful community eager to learn and share knowledge.
This respect, tolerance and appreciation has helped to catapult the UAE into the ranks of advanced countries in less than four decades. That said, it is time that the nation starts to believe in itself and the capabilities of its own citizens as well.
One field where the UAE has made major strides is education. The country boasts scores of universities offering degrees from finance to architecture to engineering, with thousands of Emiratis and expatriates graduating every year.
Last year The National reported that Traffic, a gallery in Dubai, showcased 20 works by students of the American University of Sharjah’s College of Architecture, Art and Design. Among the designs on display was Xeritown, a land development plan by the Emirati architect Ahmed Ebrahim al Ali, a co-founder of the architecture firm X-Architects. The idea was to create a community with sustainability at its heart, which would use building orientation and shade to reduce water consumption and to maintain a cool environment during the summer months.
Mr al Ali’s work did not go unnoticed and in 2008 the Zurich-based Holcim Foundation for Sustainable Construction awarded the concept its Acknowledgement prize. Xeritown also won the 2009 Middle East Architect Award Mixed-use project of the year. In the same ceremony, his fellow Emirati Khalid al Najjar, the founder of dxb.lab Architecture, was recognised as Architect of the Year.
Over the past few years Mr al Najjar has positioned himself as the face of modern architecture in the Emirates, speaking at prestigious forums from the Art Basel Conversation 2006, the International Design Forum in Dubai in 2007, and the Abu Dhabi Interior Design Show in 2008. Three years ago Wallpaper magazine featured dxb.lab in its directory of the 101 most exciting new architects in the world. It was the only firm from the Arab world to be included.
Then there is Wasel Safwan, an Emirati architect and artist based in Al Ain. Mr Safwan’s keen eye has allowed him to transcend and combine his two disciplines. Recently, he created works of art for Formula One in Abu Dhabi last autumn and the recent Womad music festival. Mr Safwan was also one of the people chosen to represent his country in the UAE pavilion at the World Expo 2010 in Shanghai.
Last week, I read with mixed emotions, both pride and disappointment, that the Dh77 million pavilion was designed by Lord Norman Foster, a British award-winning architect. Lord Foster was also chosen to design the Sheikh Zayed National Museum, arguably the museum that most powerfully symbolises the UAE, which is planned for Saadiyat Island.
Also on Saadiyat there will be Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim, Jean Nouvel’s Louvre, Zaha Hadid’s performing arts centre and Tadao Ando’s maritime museum. The common thread in all of these landmark projects is that their architects are not Emiratis.
The Egyptians have coined a phrase that applies: the Khawaja complex. Dr Numan Gharaibeh a psychiatrist at Danbury Hospital in Connecticut, defines it as “a social phenomenon characterised by indiscriminate over-valuation of everything and everybody western, European or white regardless of real or true value”. The phenomenon also applies to ideas, not just individuals.
The truth is that the UAE, like other Arab states, sometimes seems to suffer from Khawaja complex, which can be seen in various fields and practices across the country. Architecture is only one, less controversial, example.
The achievements of these respected foreigners aside, there are questions that must be answered. Do we as Emiratis wholeheartedly believe in local talent? Do we believe in indigenous creativity? Do we believe that Emiratis know their country better than foreigners, some of whom have never stepped foot on the UAE soil but are still asked to represent the country abroad?
Unless we allow nationals, both men and women, opportunities to showcase their abilities, we only pay lip service to indigenous talent and show that we do indeed suffer from Khawaja complex. While we continue to respect and appreciate foreign contributions, it is time that Emirati talent is also recognised.
*This article first appeared in The National on Sunday, 9th May 2010