In UAE, foreigners bring economic gain but social challenges



DUBAI, Acil Tabbara- With tolerance wearing thin for behaviour considered inappropriate, more and more Emiratis are denouncing the "offensive" customs of the very foreigners who are contributing to their country's success.
The United Arab Emirates, Dubai in particular, has undergone breakneck development in recent decades, attracting foreign money and foreign visitors -- in their billions and millions respectively. But such progress also has its price.



In UAE, foreigners bring economic gain but social challenges
"We have become a minority. Our traditions are threatened and Arabic is no longer a first language," says Ibtisam al-Ketbi, a sociology professor at the United Arab Emirates University.
"We are surrounded by foreigners, and live in constant fear for our children because of the spread of drugs and a rise in crime rates," she adds, echoing a sentiment felt by many "nationals," as they are commonly called.
The recent case of a British couple sentenced to a month in prison after an Emirati mother complained that they were kissing in a Dubai restaurant highlights a growing unease among a traditionally conservative local population.
The two 20-somethings were also accused of consuming alcohol, a fact they acknowledged, but said in their defence that they had only kissed on the cheek.
Now they have had their passports confiscated and have to wait as their case makes its way through the appeals procedure. They should find out in April whether their conviction has been upheld or they are free to leave.
It is understandable that many people in the UAE feel they are being swamped.
Before the 1968 oil boom, nationals made up some 62 percent of the federation's population, but now account for just 16.5 percent of an estimated population of six million, officials say.
In Dubai, the disparities are even greater. Emiratis make up only around five percent of the two million residents, estimates Chris Davidson, author of a book called "Dubai: The Vulnerability of Success."
"Many nationals now contend that they feel unwelcome in certain parts of the city and often complain that restaurant and hotel managers discriminate against national dress," writes Davidson.
In Dubai, Emiratis entrench themselves in neighbourhoods on the outskirts of the city in order not to have to mingle more than necessary with foreigners, whose customs differ widely from their own.
"We are practically living in reservations, and if this abnormal growth continues at the current rate, in 20 years' time we'll end up like the American Indians," Ketbi says.
"We were undergoing natural development until the property boom came along in the past 10 years, and in the attempt to encourage foreign investment, the city became open to everything, including alcohol and prostitution."
On radio talk shows, Emiratis often complain of seeing scantily clad foreigners in public parks and shopping malls, and express concern about how easy it is to buy alcohol.
Special permits are required for restaurants and clubs to serve alcohol, and individuals need a permit from the government. But alcohol is still available in almost all hotels and in many restaurants.
Foreigners are required to be modestly dressed, but in reality this provision is neither observed nor enforced either.
Nightclubs in Dubai can compare to those in major cities around the world, alcohol flows freely at sporting events and restrictions on women's clothing are almost non-existent.
The police do sometimes intervene, however, as they did in the case of a British couple arrested in 2008 accused of having sex on a public beach -- a story that made headlines across the globe.
Expat Michelle Palmer and tourist Vince Acors were each given a three-month suspended sentence, fined and ordered to be deported.
The Britons denied having sex in public and public indecency, but admitted to being under the influence of alcohol when they were caught on Dubai's Jumeirah public beach.
Their case drew unwanted attention to what has been a fine balancing act of preserving tradition while also allowing in outside influences that can quickly come into open conflict with an ancient and proud culture.
"Emiratis are starting to lose much of their identity, and the presence of so many expats leads to unacceptable behaviour that does not conform to our traditions," says Emirati writer and academic Abdel Khalek Abdullah.
"What arouses UAE concern is the massive influx of foreigners due to very rapid economic growth. If officials do not take bold steps, the social costs of this frantic economic development will be much greater than any economic benefits."
Abdullah thinks that "the government must review its development strategy and reduce the proportion of its ambitious growth," which may have slowed in Dubai today but is still rampant in the UAE capital, Abu Dhabi.
According to author Davidson, the worldwide economic crisis has caused anger over foreigners' customs and behaviour to be more widely expressed.
"The resentment nationals feel about foreigners is becoming more public," he believes. "Two or three years ago, no one really cared."
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Tuesday, March 30th 2010
Acil Tabbara
           


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