It is not hyperbole to say that Emirati nationals (al-muwatinin) are vastly outnumbered by foreigners in their country at a ratio higher than almost anywhere else on earth. And, while a growing ethnographic literature documents late 20th century trends among South Asian migrant workers in the Arabian Gulf states, few have examined the less populous though highly visible and influential Westerners who work and live there. They deserve our attention.

Accordingly, almost all the Westerners who live in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) are working there or are under the sponsorship of someone who is working there. Work and employment are predominant features of Westerner-Emirati interactions and experiences in Abu Dhabi.[1]These interactions are largely formal or semi-formal. Workplaces include private companies, government ministries and authorities, and schools and universities. A negligible number of both Westerners and Emiratis work in the shopping malls, hotel cafes, restaurants, and other public spaces which are the domains of communal interactive social life in Abu Dhabi.

Westerners have organized social clubs, hobby groups, sports leagues, and community groups, most of which are semi-exclusive. The primary daily social spaces of Emiratis have historically been their private homes and majalis (salons), but the emphasis on these spaces as sites of sociability has somewhat diminished, while unrelated Emiratis — especially men — increasingly gather in more public spaces like cafes, coffee shops, restaurants, shopping malls, and shisha parlors. Emirati homes and majalis are not typically sites of social interaction with Westerners, just as the residences of Westerners are not the usual sites of interaction with Emiratis. When Westerners and Emiratis socialize outside of the workplace, it is almost always in one of the aforementioned public venues.

Western businesses, hotels, restaurants, and retail stores abound in Abu Dhabi. Numerous partnerships encompass not only the substantial investments Abu Dhabi has made in the West, but also in the marked increase in the number of Western contractors and consultants the government has hired in recent years.[2]In addition, Abu Dhabi is famously establishing branches of both the Louvre and the Guggenheim museums, as well as campuses of New York University and the Sorbonne. In 2008, Manchester City, an English Premier League soccer club, was taken over by a private equity company owned by Shaykh Mansur bin Zayad al Nahyan, a member of the Abu Dhabi Ruling Family. In late 2009, Abu Dhabi hosted its first Formula One auto race at the Yas Marina Circuit.

Westerners are different from other migrant nationalities who live and work in the UAE in several important ways, but the key distinction is that they are relatively wealthy and mobile, and, thus, more powerful than other migrants. Emiratis see Westerners as having greater freedom of choice. For example, they have the ability to easily return to a breadth of job opportunities in their own countries, since their countries of origin (the United Kingdom, United States, Australia, Germany, Canada, etc.) have the world’s strongest economies and what Emiratis see as preferential standards of living, especially as compared to the traditional “sending” countries of other migrants who comprise the majority of the people living in the UAE, such as India, Pakistan, the Philippines, Bangladesh, Egypt, Syria, etc. Where employment in the Gulf is often a default option for many citizens of the long-established sending countries, Westerners deliberately choose to work in the UAE because of the benefits of the tax-free salary, geographic location, and the high standard of living for professionals.

Emiratis are acutely aware of these facts, as they are that Westerners enjoy much higher salaries in the UAE than the majority of migrant workers. As one Emirati said to me, “Westerners are expensive.” Westerners are expensive, and sometimes vexing, as Emiratis often do not believe that salaries paid are equivalent to the actual qualifications of individuals.

Westerners in the UAE enjoy the support of diplomatic missions that represent powerful countries, thus to a degree they carry authority and their voices are of some consequence in the UAE. It is within this very envelope of power and consequence that Emiratis tend to feel the most encroachment upon their values and their identity. These intrusions assume a dimension of insult when anecdotal stories about Westerners’ deliberate flaunting of local cultural practices and values circulate via the mobile phones, text messaging, Blackberry broadcasts, and e-mail forwards that are a vital social apparatus in the UAE.

Emiratis have complicated and conflicting views about the general demographic imbalance. Some bemoan it while accepting it as a “temporary” necessity; others are ambivalent about Westerners, whose presence is simultaneously sought after, but also seen as potentially encroaching. Still others feel that the imbalance and all that accompanies it is another “tax of modernity,” as an Emirati friend described it to me, since Western expertise is at least perceived as being superior by Emirati decision makers.

A Western-style course of development dominates the unprecedented construction and growth of business towers, leisure theme islands, museums, universities, alternative energy projects, and luxury hotels in Abu Dhabi. The narrative associated with this change — so familiar that its Western origins are nearly taken for granted — emphasizes modernity and progress in the form of building and acquiring, in forms which are larger, taller, faster, and more sustainable than ever before.

The fact that migrants, including Westerners, do not pose a material threat to the state’s welfare generosity toward al-muwatinin (a generosity upon which the states builds its considerable strength[3]) is somewhat immaterial to the perception many Emiratis have of losing their identity, or at least essential values, which they identify as authentically, if idealized, Gulf Arab/Emirati/Muslim/Arab/male. The dramatic compression of time associated with Abu Dhabi’s physical development, which is at once seen as virtuous and troublesome, has helped shape a dominant Emirati narrative of alarm over loss of identity, in which the values they consider most precious are being figuratively and literally built over. Although the identity label “Emirati” is itself a relatively new manifestation, it is one that matters.

The ambivalent Emirati attitudes toward Western-style development appear to be incongruous with their multi-layered familiarity and engagement with Western culture, both in Abu Dhabi and in the West. Emiratis are substantial consumers of Western movies, television shows, automobiles, websites, and books.[4]They are very accustomed to travel in the West, especially in the United Kingdom, the United States, Germany, Switzerland, and other places in Western Europe. Some upper middle class and upper class Emiratis maintain residences in these and other Western countries.[5]Many Emiratis have studied in and obtained higher education degrees from Western universities, not only in the United States and the United Kingdom but across Canada and Europe. There are dozens of nonstop flights between the cities of the UAE and cities in the West, from the West Coast of the United States all the way to Australia. All of these things point to an intensification of the relationship between Emiratis and Westerners.

This brief overview is intended to raise our awareness of Western migrants in the UAE, and offer some of the details that inform the interactions between Emiratis and Westerners. These interactions, and Emirati perceptions of Westerners generally, deserve a longer and more complicated treatment than the one given here, one that better reflects the nuances of the experiences as lived day-to-day. The colonial history of Portugal and even more so the United Kingdom in the territory which now comprises the UAE, for example, are certainly important to understanding the ways in which Westerner-Emirati interactions are framed in the contemporary context.

 

[1]. When using “Emirati” in this article, I am referring generally to male nationals (ages 19-45) in Abu Dhabi.

 

[2]. To say nothing of the vital strategic military and governmental partnerships between the UAE and the United States, France and the United Kingdom, among other Western countries.

 

[3]. I.e., higher federal salaries than foreign workers; heavily subsidized or free utilities; access to a range of grants, including housing and education, and petitions to the various shaykhly diwans. See also Anh Nga Longva, “Nationalism in the Pre-Modern Guide: The Discourse on Hadhar and Badu in Kuwait,” International Journal of Middle East Studies, Vol. 38 (2006), pp. 171-187.

 

[4]. Especially popular with Emiratis have been Western self-help books like The Secret by Rhonda Byrne, and the works of Brazilian author, Paulo Coelho — who wrote the introduction to an English-language collection of poetry by Muhammad bin Rashid al-Maktum, Vice President of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai. These authors and many others are widely available in English and Arabic translation (as is a huge variety of contemporary Western writing) although many educated young Emiratis (35 and younger) read as fluently in English as in Arabic.

 

[5]. Not to mention places in Amman, Beirut, Cairo, and Damascus. Those Emiratis who can afford it often escape the heat of the Gulf summers by traveling, if not to Europe, to the cooler climates of Lebanon and Jordan.