Dr. Khaled Batarfi
“Yes, we have enough money to keep us happy for many generations, but we decided to make our country prosperity-maker for the world, starting with our immediate neighbors. Besides, after the business plane takes off, stopping or slowing midair is not an option.” This was the answer of a senior Emirati official I met during my recent visit to his booming, blossoming country.
True, Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Sharjah are becoming profitable arenas for global heavyweight investors. They boast some of the world’s highest buildings, biggest shopping malls, artificial islands, best airlines and airports, among many other signs of affluence. The investment in the future is even greater.
I do appreciate the mentality of openness, transparency and optimism. The Emiratis make you feel that nothing is impossible to achieve if you have the will, the courage and the right attitude.
Still, I couldn’t help ask my candid host about the price they had to pay, the side effects and if it was really worth it?
Some 95 percent of Dubai’s population is expatriates. At the current rate, in ten years, the native population may go down to less than one percent. Most expatriates are from one racial background. Few locals have a stake in the huge development their country is making. You can hardly find them in the street, offices and boardrooms. In fact, you can go around Dubai for days and see no Emirati and speak no Arabic.
I relayed this to my host, and he was like waiting for the question. “You don’t see a problem with that?” I asked.
“Not really!” he said. “Yes, I would hate to miss my language in the street, but ... there is a price for luxury!”
What a price, I thought; then pressed on: More than just losing your language, you may actually lose your culture and identity. Your kids will grow in an alien world, where they become a tiny minority in their own country. They won’t need their language to communicate, because almost no one else uses it. They would look hard for an Arabic school to attend.
There is also the security dimension. How can you control a majority of a certain race if things went the Parisian way? In France, the rioters represented a small minority, but still it took a big power a long while to calm things down. How are you going to deal with a similar disturbance if your majority demanded more rights in what they may regard as their homeland?
To be fair, this is not just an Emirati phenomenon. The Bahraini labor minister submitted a study to the recent Gulf Cooperation Council summit about the worsening situation in the whole region. He warned that, soon enough, millions of expatriates will be eligible to full citizenship. Most are non-Muslim or non-Arab. Since all Gulf countries are now members of WTO, they can’t keep denying such rights to long-term residents. He suggested that for nonessential labor there should be a stay limit of six years.
The Emirati official was not alarmed. “Our expatriates”, he contended, “won’t rebel because they are happy. Losing cultural identity in today’s global village is normal. Dubai and other Emirate cities are now top global hub for business, media and entertainment. We do try to give a local flavor and touch to our cities, services and offerings. Look at this hotel, for example. It has Arabic and Islamic architectural look and feel, but was built by foreigners. What difference does it make? There is a price to be paid for luxury.”
But why do you have to get all your labors from one region? Since you do have a choice, why haven’t you diversified? I asked.
He was frank.
“Labor from the region we depend on is cheaper and more skilled. They expect less and give more. Security-wise, we have had the best experience, yet, with them than with other nationalities. Our economic boom is private sector made. If businesses prefer certain nationality and we don’t have a problem with that for the above reasons, then ... why not?”
The next few days in Dubai, I talked to people of different nationalities. He was right. Most were economically happy or OK. But politically, they were not. Many long-time residents demanded equal treatment. “Why Emiratis pay only a third of the outrageously expensive electric bills and we pay in full”, an Egyptian executive protested. “This means we subsidize the locals. It is not fair.”
An Emirati airport staff felt insecure. “I can’t argue even with a taxi driver, because his street population might gang up with him against lonely me! It is scary!”
I still think the Dubai experience is enriching, educating and enlightening. There are so many useful lessons we could learn from. But one of the most important is: There should be a limit to what price you pay for luxury!