Perspectives change and ideas develop. This is a comforting and humbling realisation for any individual. Controversy often surrounds perception and it frequently goes that the wider the catch area the larger the contention, so when transformations occur in societies perceptions are definitive. There is a fundamental shift occurring in the UAE’s social fabric. Another perspective is that it has already occurred and we now exist in its aftermath. Discussions regarding the social fabric can be marred by mutually-exclusive definitions and rhetoric and in conservative societies these discussions can be especially tricky.
The transformations in the UAE are not just a straightforward matter of changing demographics or culture, it is a process that is unprecedented in modern history. The accommodating social and political landscape and the pace of economic development in the UAE’s two major cities have produced realities that to many observers seem almost surreal.
Talking about socio-political issues in everyday forums around the UAE is characterised by a common trait that transcends nationalities, self-censorship. Local media, online forums and the like are also plagued by this hindrance. The avoidance of ‘sensitive’ issues has resulted in the lack of progress in some very contentious yet pivotal social debates. One especially relevant topic to the transformations in the UAE’s social fabric has been tackled relatively frequently and has dominated social discourse amongst local and expatriate communities. That is the topic of demographic imbalance. This particular subject has been widely discussed and local and federal government bodies have identified it as a potential challenge; solutions have been discussed and plans set out, as in the issue of ‘Emiratisation’.
It is clear that the UAE has moved on to a stage in its history where it must accept it will no longer ever be that conservative and closed society it once was. The lives lived by the national and expatriate communities in these two cities are not what they were at the turn of the millennium, let alone at the founding of the nation 41 years ago. This is a reality many of the older generation are reluctant to perceive, a reality the younger technocrat generation believe is necessary or a fact of life, and a reality that is truly at our collective mercy.
The difficulty with addressing and discussing the transformations of the UAE’s social fabric is its complex and multifaceted nature, which necessitates extensive analysis, but also leaves the topic vulnerable to hijacking and manipulation through selective focus. This discussion is primarily the millstone of the state; it has the capacity, capability and prerogative to address these issues. Federal government structures however have not handled the matter in any substantial way, and along with local governments have chosen to by and large continue ‘business-as-usual’.
Between change and continuity
Transformation is not straightforward and perception itself can be power, therefore feared. The UAE’s unique social fabric is blessed with diversity, a trait highly sought after in this globalised, interconnected world. This has given the UAE a priceless ingredient and the ability to harness the vast potential of this broad talent pool. But with such diversify comes the inevitable tensions; the changes in the country’s social fabric and the pace of economic development have resulted in unresolved conflicts. Conflicts between change/continuity, local/foreign and old/new. However, far from being a controversy these conflicts are entirely natural. The root of controversy can be attributed to the fear of loss, the growing pains, but instead of accommodating this hindrance and acquiesce it is imperative these perceptions and fears be identified for what they are and what they are not.
The social fabric of the UAE has changed. It is a fundamental change but this change is also now a matter of perception, either as a continuing struggle and inevitable eventuality or as a period of the nation’s past.
What exists today as the UAE is a dream come true for many. For some perhaps a nightmare and for others a natural stage in a developing society. Perception is the name of the game. As the region is witnessing political tensions and transformations; it is high time the UAE becomes confident enough to accommodate perceptions and begins to openly and constructively address the inherent issues that lie beneath symptoms such as the demographic imbalance and culture shock.
Extensive research, critical engagement and objective analysis are a few of the required tools for this process of transformation to be perceived and appreciated more accurately.
Gaith Abdulla is a Dubai-based writer focusing on socio-political issues. You can follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/gaith_ab