Friday, January 26, 2007


It may be useful to view the collection of nationalities that co-exist in the UAE as a patchwork of colorful fabrics, which while interconnected remain separate and distinct. As one walks in a shopping mall or down a street--in those parts of cities where one walks rather than drives--an individual's nationality can often be understood by how he or she dresses. Among the various Arab groupings, the color, design and style of the traditional gowns and headpieces are distinctive. Some also wear Western-style clothes, which distinguishes them from those Arabs who generally do not.

It is the same for those from the varied countries of South Asia, who populate the country in large number, where there is a mix of traditional and Western-style clothing, which together with other identifying features--such as hair styles, facial hair, mannerisms, etc.--distinguish one from another. Among Europeans, both Eastern and Western, and among Westerners of various ethnicity, dress is less a distinguishing characteristic than mannerisms or behavior. And of course, among all groupings language, dialect and accent play a big role in identifying nationality.

By way of comparison, one might similarly come across a plethora, as such, of people speaking various languages and dialects, wearing national dress and exhibiting other features of their national origin in other cosmopolitan centers, like New York City, London or Paris. But on the streets of New York, for example, there would appear to be greater intermingling, or at least a tendency for non-locals to begin taking on aspects of the dominant or native culture, whether that be in language, behavior, dress or other forms of expression.

In the UAE, by contrast, this generally does not happen. While all here co-exist, living peaceably and sharing the public and common spaces, the roads, shopping malls, restaurants, parks, etc., the separateness of each group or nationality is quite remarkable. It is rather colorful, and in that sense positive and very much like a tapestry, which can be admired for its richness, contrasts and color. But, this separateness has its negative sense as well, including the commonly recognized failure of different communities to understand and appreciate one another.

Having been in the UAE for over six years, I have always been struck by this notion of distinctiveness among groups with both its good and bad aspects. On balance, it is obvious that people find this arrangement comfortable as it allows them to feel more at home in what might otherwise be an alien environment, even, if not especially, for the native Emirati.

As a Westerner, myself, of United States origin, and in terms of what I consider unique affinities from having lived and travelled in different parts of the world, I find that what I like most in the UAE, and especially in Dubai, is that I can live largely uninhibited the lifestyle I feel most comfortable with. I am bound by neither local traditions nor by my own Western or American heritage. There is a definite and distinct level of freedom in this society that is even somewhat lacking in societies traditionally described as liberal or multicultural.

In America, for example, despite its freedoms, there is sometimes the overbearing sense of Americanism in terms of attitudes, behaviors, outlook, etc., even though the culture accepts a great deal of individual expression. In the UAE, by contrast, I feel I can be as American or un-American as I want to be and not feel out-of-place either way. If I desire I may indulge in Arab, Indian or any number of other cultures without the sense that I am being un-American. This is not to suggest that the UAE is a more free or liberal country than the US; it clearly is not, especially in terms of freedom of speech, religion, politics, etc. But in the sense that such a great variety of lifestyles and cultures co-exist here, UAE society is in many ways more pluralistic than that of the United States and most other countries.

In contrast to the explicit distinctions that exist among the various nationalities here today, I believe that a more assimilated national character will develop within the UAE in time. The fact that this does not exist today is in large part due to the relative youth of the nation and its constant evolution demographically.


The thought behind today's word came to me yesterday as I was sitting at a table in one of the Adnoc Oasis stations between Abu Dhabi and Dubai. I was once again struck by the apparent separateness among nationalities here--an Indian (Keralite) family at one table, a group of local (Emirati) men at another, a middle eastern (Lebanese, Jordanian or Syrian) family at yet another, and so on. The first thought that came to mind was, why do they (we--myself included) remain so separate and distinct from one another? But then I thought, this is what works for us here. It is how we are all able to feel most comfortable, whether expat or native.

Then again, there are the so-called local-expats, those born locally of expatriate parents, who could well serve as a bridge across the various divides. They represent, perhaps, a preview of what in the future could be a more assimilated UAE national character.

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