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How Urbanisation Is Changing Emirati Identity

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A video taken in the late 1990s shows Sheikh Zayed standing in his majlis talking to Mohammed Khalifa Al Habtoor, the speaker of the Federal National Council who served from 1997 to 2003. I vividly recall watching that video when I was a teenage student in Paris. Sheikh Zayed, wearing his golden embroidered bisht, a sort of cape worn by the heads of tribes in the Gulf on major occasions, gestures to the audience in his majlis, saying, "I swear by God Almighty that I did not know that there were now people (citizens) who were living in rented accommodation. Until I have received their request letters. In Abu Dhabi and in Dubai and from Sharjah and from Ras Al Khaimah. There are people living in rented accommodation. How can they be living in rented accommodation? How can any ruler accept that his citizens are today living in rented accommodation?"

That was as recent as 1998. Today, however, it is a completely different story. Many UAE nationals reside not only in rented houses but also in rented apartments and studios, and many of these shared. When Sheikh Zayed officially became President of the UAE in December 1971, there were 180,000 UAE inhabitants. That was a manageable number even with the country's then meagre resources. Today, the total population has exceeded eight million with the nationals accounting for 923,000 of the total. Many UAE nationals privately dispute the figures of UAE nationals in the belief that the UAE population is less than the official estimate. It is indubitable, however, that many more Emiratis today live in an urban environment. And a significant number of UAE nationals commute daily to the urban environments of Dubai and Abu Dhabi from the poorer emirates such Ras Al Khaimah and Fujairah.

A friend, an HR manager, told me a revealing story. A bright Emirati girl, whom we shall name Aisha, applied at one of the many job fairs in Dubai to work for a government-owned establishment. After the interview young Aisha asked my friend if she would be getting the job. He told her that she would be notified in a week's time. The girl seemed anxious and told the interviewer that if he could not give her an answer by the end of the day, he need not bother notifying her at all later. Aisha explained that she was one of five young girls who commute daily to work from one of the farther Northern Emirates to Dubai. Aisha, you see, had lost her job and was very close to losing her carpool seat, the cost of which she shared with the other four Emirati girls. It seems that there was another contender for the seat and losing it would mean she could not take a new job in Dubai. Stories like that (and there are many) do not fit well with the flamboyant image of the Emirati national and receive little media attention. The media prefer, for instance, the launch of a brand new real estate project.

Such stories also reveal the divide between the age groups. Young UAE national girls are proportionally more educated than young men but are still confined to the customs and traditions of the country. Seldom do young girls share a flat apart from their families, as is the case with young Emirati men.

Abu Dhabi especially has become a magnet for job seekers as its economy continues to grow rapidly despite the recent global financial crisis. New projects, most of them government-led, were not postponed or terminated as was the case in some of the other six emirates. So high has been the demand for accommodation in Abu Dhabi that the 1980s and 90s phenomenon of Emiratis and expats living in one emirate and working in another has been replicated in the capital.

I half jokingly told my friends that in 2009 Dubai had become Abu Dhabi's Sharjah, the latter being seen by some as an alternative accommodation location to Dubai's relatively more expensive homes. This is not a negative development since it ensures that the numerous projects that are constructed in Dubai remain occupied. The phenomenon has grown so much recently that some Abu Dhabi firms have arranged to pick up their staff from places like Ibn Battuta mall in Dubai and bus them to work in Abu Dhabi, which is about an hour's drive away.

But where does the UAE identity figure in all this? Emiratis from a less wealthy background are, like any other nationality, more willing to work in demanding jobs than are their more prosperous fellow citizens. For example, etisalat, a telecom provider in Abu Dhabi is largely run and staffed by Emiratis from Ras Al Khaimah. That should not be seen as a negative phenomenon since their presence has contributed to a demographic balance between expats and nationals in Abu Dhabi.

In fact, many Emiratis who traditionally came from the northern less-wealthy emirates and regions have chosen to relocate permanently to Abu Dhabi, Dubai, and even Sharjah. Commuting time is an issue since, for example, a short drive of 15 kilometres from Sharjah to Dubai can take up to one hour and forty-five minutes. Movement to the urban areas has drastically affected the locus of Emirati identity in the country.

Today, much of the traditional culture of the UAE is better preserved in the rural areas of the country while the nation's rapid urbanisation is creating realities on the ground that are too fast for us to deal with. For instance, the younger generations of the Shehhi tribe of Ras Al Khaimah, a proud and gracious people, started moving to Abu Dhabi three decades ago for work. Their language, a mixture of Arabian Gulf coastal dialect and classical Arabic, is seldom being transmitted to their children and is at risk of disappearing altogether when the older generation passes on. But in non-urban cities with a slower pace of life poetry is recited in majlises and women and men learn traditional handicrafts and the way to cook local dishes. Many of those traditions are now disappearing because of the rapid urbanisation of culture.

Many majlises have been exchanged with the imported culture of coffee houses that serve tobacco called sheesha or hubbly-bubbly. Some say it is too benign a name for a carcinogenic import that is harming not just Emirati health but also our Emirati culture. In suburban settings, on the other hand, many young Emiratis learn how to keep birds of prey, identify the fish that swim in the Arabian Gulf, and distinguish among various types of dates. Urban Emiratis, those 30 and under, are often loathe to be associated with such non-essential aspects of 21st-century life.

Of all seven emirates it is Abu Dhabi, by far the most affluent, that will probably be the biggest benefactor or victim, depending on which way you see it, of a huge population increase that is projected to take the city's population to 3.1 million by 2030 from the present one million. And like the more urban emirates of Dubai and Sharjah, Emirati culture will probably be a major casualty of this exponential jump. What is the UAE capital doing to combat such serious erosion? Quite a bit in fact, and its strategy seems to be novel and pre-emptive.

First, there is the Sheikh Zayed National Museum that is being designed by the Pritzker Architecture Prize winner, Lord Norman Foster and his firm Foster + Partners Ltd. The museum, to be located in the Cultural District of Saadiyat Island just 500 metres offshore from the capital city island of Abu Dhabi, will be dedicated not only to the country's founder, its namesake, but also to various aspects of Emirati culture such as desert life and customs.

Second, Abu Dhabi established a National Center for Documentation and Research with the duty to spread awareness of the history of the UAE, conduct school visits and lectures, and safeguard historical documents. Such a center "inspires patriotism, as archives preserve the memories and historical register of the nation" according to its website.

Third, Abu Dhabi is also aggressively supporting the Poet of Millions competition in which nabati or traditional Arabian Peninsular dialect is the ticket to large monetary rewards. In fact, this popular and successful show is so notable that it recently made the front page of The New York Times .

Fourth, Abu Dhabi made sure that it does not sell land to non-Gulf nationals. Although it is not certain that this policy will persist in the future, it has acted to safeguard any terrestrial claims that expats may have in the emirate. Rather than selling property and land outright, as is the case in Dubai, Ajman, Um Al Qaiwain, and Ras Al Khaimah (Sharjah and Fujairah are the two most strict emirates with regard to property sales), Abu Dhabi authorizes a 99-year lease for non-GCC citizens.

Fifth, in 2001 Abu Dhabi launched the Emirates Film Competition under the umbrella of the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage (ADACH). To the point of Emirati culture, condition number 20 states that "works may be submitted to the competition on the condition that they respect the aims of the competition; specifically, films must deal with Culture or U.A.E. Heritage."

Additionally, in September 2009 Abu Dhabi hosted a meeting of UNESCO's Intergovernmental Committee for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage "to discuss world cultural traditions that face an immediate risk of being wiped out." The UAE delegation supported the recognition of falconry by UNESCO and nominated the UAE traditional dances of Al Ayala and Al Ahaala for recognition by the international body. Abu Dhabi clearly realizes the danger of the disappearing UAE culture, and rather than battling globalization, Abu Dhabi is employing the strategy of using that unstoppable force to promote Emirati culture.

In the desert oasis of Al Ain, the capital recently multiplied its preservation efforts, and the results are starting to show. The preservation of Al Jahili Fort, for instance, was coupled with an exhibition of the history of Zayed the First who ruled the emirate in the late 19th century. The fort also houses photographs taken by Wilfred Thesiger, one of the earliest Western explorers to the area known then as the Trucial States. Thesiger was embraced as one of our own by the people of the emirates who affectionately nicknamed the British visitor famous for crossing the Empty Quarter as Mubarak bin London.

Abu Dhabi, the city in the UAE that is standing to gain or lose most from the influx of foreigners searching for a better life, may have an advantage over Dubai, the pioneering Gulf city, in that it can learn from other's experiences and limit practices such as foreign ownership of land and employ a pre-emptive rather than reactionary effort to preserve Emirati identity. And yet it is ironic that the city is becoming so expensive that many of its inhabitants, including Emirati nationals (those people it is keen on protecting the most) are forced either to live outside it or to share a rented accommodation within it.

More than a decade after Sheikh Zayed's declaration that he was surprised to learn that Emiratis are forced to live in rented accommodation, the urbanisation of Emirati culture only seems to be gaining momentum. Emiratis like the carpooling Aisha have been trying in their own way to cope with this new culture in their attempts to follow the job market. It may be too soon to tell if Abu Dhabi's strategy of embracing globalisation and employing it as a tool to preserve Emirati culture will be a success. It is likely that as the Emirate heads to tripling its overall, mostly foreign, population, only parts of it will prevail in this rolling cultural experiment.

Finally, there may come a time soon when Emiratis realize that they have exchanged too much, too soon, for too little. By then the old generation would have passed on, and it will be a case of salvaging what is left of Emirati culture in a way like walking into a burned house to salvage what the fire has spared.

On the one hand, urbanisation may turn out to be, as many fear, the fire that is slowly eating up Emirati culture, leaving many of us helpless to stop it and left wondering what will be left to salvage. On the other hand, it may be the Emirati culture's best chance of survival in a globalized world.

A Shorter version of this essay appeared in Al Manakh 2: Gulf Continued