21 March, 2007

Dr Al Suwaidi interview

He has some choice words:
Tribalism, says Dr Jamal Al Suwaidi, Director of the Abu Dhabi-based Emirates Centre for Strategic Studies and Research (ECSSR), is an obstacle to the building of a civil society structure. "That was clearly evident in the FNC elections" last December, he told Gulf News in an interview....
Dr Al Suwaidi - who is also the political adviser to General Shaikh Mohammad Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Abu Dhabi Crown Prince and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces - said if the election process is to be expanded, "it will perhaps become even more tribal and will take the UAE back at least 50 years."

Tribalism hinders the growth of a civic society, he said, adding that "in the UAE, there are no real civic society organisations. For example, where is the Human Rights Society? It has done nothing since its creation last year. It is just a name, a banner."

The media is in a similar sorry state, said Dr Al Suwaidi. "We have to ask if we really have an Emirati media or just some kind of media in the emirates. It [the media] suffers from self censorship. Everybody talks about the freedom of expression but they never exercise it."
Our education system is a failure. There is a significant migration from public schools to private institutions. The Ministry of Education talks too much, but does nothing."

Here Dr Al Suwaidi stops to tell a story to stress his point. A few weeks ago he visited the Mall of the Emirates on Dubai's Shaikh Zayed Road and it was a strange experience for him. "I felt awkward as everybody there was staring at me as if I were from another planet. It was because I wore a kandoura."
"Sometimes we feel like strangers in our own country," he says, pointing out that foreigners now constitute more almost 90 per cent of the population - a stark contrast with the officially announced census results which said last year that foreigners represented 79 per cent of the UAE's total population.

He acknowledges "the danger" of the country's demographic dilemma but says it is "too late" to find ways to solve it. "The best we can do is to search for ways to how best to co-exist as nationals with the expatriate majority in the UAE," he says.
"We must admit that religious currents, like the Muslim Brotherhood, carry a message that enjoys the sympathy of the majority in the Arab world. But if they grabbed power they would send everybody to the gallows. Today, we are stuck between two extremes: the authoritarian regimes on one hand and the Islamist totalitarian opposition," he said. In the UAE the Brotherhood has a following, he reveals.
So, UAE bloggers how about it? Dr Al Suwaidi asks for less self censorship. Are you ready to deliver? Ready to discuss tribalism? The education system? The Muslim Brotherhood? The demographic imbalance? Civic society?


Kismet said...

I have a great deal of sympathy with the dilemma faced by the Emiratis. They will always be the minority in their own country. I remember an Emirati student saying :"This is MY country and I will do what I like."; an expression of frustration born out of a continual imposition of other cultures and education and an inability to comprehend all the nuances of the several dozen nationalitiies with whom she came into contact daily. I come from the UK where the population is expected to grow from 60m to 69 m simply because of immigration and where entire political parties have sprung up as a backlash to even the existing immigrant communities.

How can there be anything but a dilution of national identity here? The place is flooded with immigrants with their own agendas. Although we are never granted citizenship, the place is sufficiently attractive for many to consider it their home and, indeed, there are many second generation offspring who have known no other. On the other side, because there is no sense of society and citizenship amongst the non indigenous population, many take the rights but have no regard for the responsibilities; as evidenced by the greedy landlords and monosynaptic drivers, not all of whom are Emirati.

Of course the fundamenatalists are worried and angry. In their minds, Mammon and Allah cannot coexist. And the cultivation greenhouses for fundamentalism are the areas of greatest deprivation and inequality. How galling it is for the British to have housing and hospital places given up to newly arrived immigrants who have never contributed a penny to the nation's taxes. How galling it must be for the poor Emirati to see immigrant children getting better education than his own get in public schools.

The UAE policy makers are navigating a minefield and if they get it wrong, they stand to lose all the gains of the past two decades.

rosh said...

Nicely said kismet - couldn't agree more.

I am a second generation offspring and feel for the Emi's on the aspect of being a minority and standing the risk of loosing their infant culture in their own home! Picture a Brit or an Indian's sentiment, if the UK or India were made up off 80% Chinese or the French - most of who are in for the short haul prospects.

I feel for Dr Al Suwaidi - when he feels "alien" in his own home. In the 70's or 80's you could spot several more khandoora clad men - these days, it's a rare find. Moreso, 'cause compared to most neighboring nations/cultures - the Emi culture (though quite beautiful) is quite infant.

Honestly, not sure, if there is a solution to this - except perhaps each of us can be more considerate towards a place that has given us much?

Re: Freedoms of expression, censorship etc change come with time I suppose. Perhaps the most free nation today - the United States - did not afford similar freedoms to the black community till a few decades back - so perhaps in the UAE, this is a matter of time as well. Likewise the outlook towards various aspects of this nation - be it sponsorships and immigration, equality, the "wasta" factor, tribal communities etc - shall change for the positive with time and continued education and exposure to healthy global ways of working.

The fact that an individual like Dr Al Suwaidi (given his placement) is addressing the freedom factor is a healthy start.

John B. Chilton said...

kismet and rosh - Brilliant comments. I find myself very much in agreement.

fellow atheist said...

I am very impressed by Dr. Al Suwaidi's comments. These are things that are said among the elite in the UAE, but I have never seen published. Kudos to him and the ECSSR.

The UAE citizens are in trouble and there is no 'right' solution. It's just that. You can't have it all. You can either grow slowly and have far more control over your identity, or grow at lightning speed and lose your identity.. the only thing you can do is form a new one.

I am glad that people like Dr Al Suwaidi are advising the rulers of the UAE.

An expat who has come to love the UAE.

Anonymous said...

The problem is that it was a very deliberate and calculated move on the part of the rulers of the emirate.

It was their choice, and they made it without wanting to think about (or caring about) the downside.

Tragic for the average Emirati, but they do not (and are not allowed) to question the wisdom of their leaders.

On one strange point - Mall of the Emirates is full of UAE nationals. He must have gone at 8am or something because there are thousands and thousands of Emiratis at that mall most of the time.

Anonymous said...

Also, strong cultures evolve and integrate (taking parts of other cultures and still retaining a strong sense of self)

It's interesting to see that many UAE nationals associate things like the kandoora with their culture.

Jeremy Bendik-Keymer said...

I disagree with most of the people here. I think nationalism is a reactionary force, and I distinguish it from its apparent partner, love of country. I think there is a way to keep culture without making it nationalist and while keeping love of country. It is to create very specific initiatives, incentives and disincentives for the promotion of arts with historical memory and contemporary honesty, the reform of public education to create reflective individuals who learn to think critically about what matters in life so they can choose value over superficiality, and the preservation of language.

On this last point, I was invited to write an editorial for Jumeirah Beach Magazine last year on the loss of Arabian identity. I suggested that the government consider making Arabic language instruction a necessary part of corporations and major institutions settling here. Emiratization is required -why not teaching expats Arabic? I think it would make a difference if expats could start to envision Arab society and could more easily read about it and talk with Arabs in their mother tongue. I also think the cultural benefits would be significant, since whenever we learn languages, we learn about the cultures of the language. As Wittgenstein said, a language is a form of life.

I sympathize with people feeling the loss of their culture. I don't think nationalism is a good answer, though. Much better are targeted initiatives to foster the missing culture in ways that affect the cultural ocean we swim in, combined with an educational system that teaches people how to think for themselves and perceive what is of value. Then people won't be caught as helplessly when meaning dissipates. They can look around them and chart a course to things of value, some of which will surely involve continuity with their grand-parents, old culture, ecology, and mother tongue.

Besides, as you have all said, it's a done deal, thanks to globalization. The way to move forward is to figure out how to help people synthesize something new that involves the old as a mark of its meaning and quality.

Thanks to John Chilton for pointing out this exchange, and thanks for all your comments. I also think Dr. Al Suwaidi sounds like an honest and brave man, and I hope the best for this country, which has been so generous as to let us in.

PS Another interesting idea would be a non-profit, volunteer organization called something like "Bridgeworks" and run by Emiraties in which Emirati families "adopt an expat", that is, agree to share some culture and time with an expat, provided that the expat reciprocate by giving something of value back, not material, but cultural. This would help both parties understand our common situation, which can often seem alienating when faced with the culture of the other.

Anonymous said...

I am impressed by the posts here. It is my first time here seeing productive posts by my fellow forumers.

Hatem said...

I also agree with the excellent views above. One of the few times we have a real discussion….
My only comment is related to education, I think Emirati people, especially the young ones, need to learn how to compete in real life by focusing on real careers during their education phase. It’s important to target jobs like doctors, dentists, engineers, accountants, technicians, etc. more than studying business administration and management. There must be real motivations pushing the students to study ‘hard science’ in a high level of competition environment. In my opinion, those people will be building and developing their country, hand-in-hand with expatriates, who will be only required to increase the man-power; and then, hopefully the gap will decrease.
By the way, I see that this competition trend is increasing recently. I don’t know since when, but I’ve just noticed it recently, and I am happy for this.
My best wishes to my brothers and sisters of the UAE, the country who gave us a lot.

Emirati said...

I dont know what this concern about expatriates is. This phenomenon is relative to the growth of the economy. In the mid 90s, when the Dubaian economy was not doing as well, we never heard these complaints.

Having a country which is run by a majority of expats is a wonderful thing. We really have some great people in the UAE, and I would love to see some of them naturalized.

However lets be realistic. To open the door for everyone is impossible. Even if the government pressed for it, it would be pretty impossible to pull off. The idea stems from the fact that we as Emirati nationals would have to share what we have, with other people.

You might say, 'hey we built your country, you should share'. But you did not do it out of the benevolence of your hearts. The UAE is easier than many countries to enter into. Can workers from India go and find a job in America this easily ? How about in Britain ? Of course not because these countries are managed by people who have not gotten the drift with regards to globalization and the international labour market.

I will say the expatriates living in the UAE, to me, are welcome to stay as long as you want. How many are naturalized, how this procedure takes place, that it entirely up to us, the Emirati people. I dont htink that youll find anyone who will say no to naturalize an expat whose lived here for 30 years or give residencies to people who have lived here for 25 years.

BuJ said...

I read that article from start to finish on GN with my coffee today and I appreciated it and wanted to blog about it but I somehow knew that you'd also blog about it.

Good post!

BuJ said...


Jeremy: I agree with you totally about the Arabic Language.. me for one would love to see more of it in schools in the UAE and would like to see some form of language tuition for non Arabs compulsory.

None of this stupid one-size-fits-all aka teacher-em-expats-from-the-ministry-books kinda crap.. no.. there should be a standard arabic cirriculum for arabs and another for non-arabs at a much easier level. and yes, make it COMPULSORY.

Emirati great to see your comments here. Your words have no dust on them (to translate from the original Arabic!)

Ash said...

The UAE has a unique advantage in being able to set precedent for every race, creed, color, tint or hue to coexist; another step forward into civilization, as we know it. For too long the two population strands have lived nonchalantly completely unaware of one another ad infinitum. The communication breakdown only serves to further worsen the problem as there are so few opportunities to discuss and exchange views. This rather bleak state of affairs accentuates the need to explore newer, innovative educational solutions that allow a better and more enhanced cultural understanding to continue unabated. My personal feeling is that one promising answer may be found in the form of community groups or open forums, the sort of institutions that are charted to specifically bridge the gap between the local and expatriate communities with input from both ends of the population spectrum. Also, in not underestimating the young mind, I see an acute need to improve the public schooling system for non-local parents to consider sending their children there as most all such children of a local schooling background tend to be closer to the ways and the habits of the Emiratis, who in turn understand and appreciate theirs, from personal observation. While some Emiratis bemoan the influence most expatriates have had on their culture (which, for the most part, is for good reason), the majority of the younger population exudes positivity and a hunger to be understood and initiate dialogue which can only mean good things in terms of finding a common platform for the stark extremes that exist in this country. Having said that, I think the expatriate community has a greater part to play in eliminating the cross cultural divide that over the last 5 years has threatened to engulf the country like the plague that it is. Foreigners need to understand that Emiratis have had to adjust with enormous cultural and social change over the space of a couple generations, often unwillingly so. It's a society in constant transition and the focus is inevitably shifting toward attempting to safeguard their identity.

Emarati Nickel & Dime said...

Oh what beautiful responses from kismet, rosh, jeremy, hatem, ash and the rest. Thank you all :) All very informative on how the expat community thinks because quite frankly, i think they're tired of being in the mix too. And they want to identify or at least learn more about our culture and social customs. More people like you and we'd have a harmonious Emirat! The kind people would envy you for living in :)

rosh said...

"The idea stems from the fact that we as Emirati nationals would have to share what we have, with other people."

Emi - for the most part agree with you. However, a sentiment I often hear, but don’t fully understand is the one above. I mean what exactly is it that you have to "share" - if souls born/raised in this nation are granted residency or naturalized?

For instance, for the most part we’ve never voted in lives, or been given any sort of “preference” whilst job hunting, have free education or medical care – have sponsored anyone or have had sponsorship income.

Hence, say an expat soul is naturalized or granted residency – I just don’t believe we shall “demand” all the above bag of goodies. Primarily because, we’ve lived our lives -and for the most part have made successful lives without the bag of goodies, hence to me, it makes little difference in our set ways of living.

I think, based on my debates with most (not all) fellow 2nd/3rd gen expat souls – the sentiment is to have some sort of stability in a place where one has born and raised i.e. do away with the stigmas of being “temporary” – “sponsored” – “ have visas” for the rest of our lives.

I for one, don’t particularly care for another passport (I’ve got couple, which enables me to live, travel and work in a few countries without visas) – however I do care for stability whilst living in a house I call “my home”, whilst walking the neighbourhoods and reminiscing the years & experiences which made me what I am today – which fortunately, or otherwise is in the UAE. Not everything has to be tied to a bag of goodies. It is good enough having had the opportunity grow up in this nation, and I think we shall agree – the basic need for human identity is not having to call someone “temporary” after 30 years?

Anyhow, this whole topic is sensitive I suppose, and rather vague to explain via blog posts. Just wanted to share a few views on - “share” - something I keep hearing more often these days.

Sorry people, I realize this is way off topic to the original post – just needed some clarity.

Ash - agree with all your views.

Ibn Battuta said...

A very rich and fascinating post and discussion. Is this anything unique to the UAE though? I too feel like a stranger in my own country (I'm afraid to admit, but the US), but it isn't because of immigrants. In fact, many of the immigrants, coming from small communities and committed families, I feel more at "home" with! What is being lost is ourselves, but not in some nationalistic sense - our culture, our traditions, our language - but our basic humanity. Suburbs, hyper-markets, malls, meaningless jobs, super-highways, iPods, cell phones - they all eat away at our humanness, restructuring our relationships with one another....

I agree that Arabic language should be taught in schools - not just because it is the national language of the UAE, but because it provides an opportunity to reach across cultures and learn and interact with one another. Learning languages shouldn't be about exerting some nationalistic pride, but about adventure and exploration - the essence of being human.

Just as a side-note, I personally don't think most Arabs are sympathetic with the Muslim Brotherhood - except in the fact that they represent opposition to extremely authoritarian regimes that rule through brutal police forces.

BuJ said...

Ouch! What brought the Muslim Brotherhood on the discussion table here?!
Muddy waters conceal potential dangers underneath.

Emirati said...

When the government distributes the stock for every single national company amongst all Emiratis, guarentees my children and their children, a free education up to the bachelors level, and imposes on any UAE national the nessecity to be an arab speaker, then I will wholeheartedly vouch for every single expatriate to be naturalized.

rosh said...

"When the government distributes the stock for every single national company amongst all Emiratis, guarentees my children and their children, a free education up to the bachelors level, and imposes on any UAE national"

I thought this was already in place (well perhaps not the children's children statement)- guess I was wrong?

"then I will wholeheartedly vouch for every single expatriate to be naturalized."

What makes you think every expat would want to be naturalized a UAE citizen?

Perhaps at a realistic scale - yet filter out those who honestly want to be in your country - by all means start with naturalization (which would mean the expats would need to give up any other passports they hold, since UAE generally would not allow dual citizenship) - introduce taxation - set up governmental funds for education, healthcare, the road system etc all thru tax funds - instead of expecting funds solely from oil revenues. And lastly mandate the need to sign up with the army.

Perhaps you shall have the expat who truly feel this place as home, and not just in for any sorta goodies or guarantees?

samuraisam said...

rosh: I think he's saying that he'd like naturalization up to the point that it doesn't infringe upon the current benefits emirati's recieve from the government

rosh said...

nvolzThanks Sam - I agree with Emi, it shouldn't be an infringement in their ways of lives or benefits the nation has granted them - it's their right.

My comments or views are more or less expressing an expat's point of view - many of whom, after decades of growing up here, are more or less stuck with a temporary stigma. Hence to the large majority - infringing on such benefits is least of our needs/wants - stability is, that's all.

John B. Chilton said...

buj - It was Dr Al Suwaidi who brought up the presence of the Muslim Brotherhood in the UAE. No doubt it represents a tiny tiny fraction of the over 4,000,000 people living here.

John B. Chilton said...

A couple of points of clarification.

1. Few if any of the nonnationals commenting are asking for UAE citizenship. Many are expressing their appreciation of the privledge to live and work here and to encounter Emirati society. And they empathize with challenges confronted by Emirati society when it constitutes a minority within the UAE.

2. In response to Jeremy's comment, I don't any of us are endorsing nationalism in the sense of a reactionary force. Rather we are responding to the question of the survival of an Emirati cultural identity in the face of factors that Dr Al Suwaidi identified such as tribalism between Emiratis (is there love of country as long as tribalism is strong?) and the minority status of Emiratis in their own country.

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