Opinion | Columnists

UAE's demographic imbalance

The problem is abundantly clear. But what is not so clear is what to do about it and how to effectively deal with its unintended consequences for the sake of the country's future

  • By Abdulkhaleq Abdullah, Special to Gulf News
  • Published: 00:00 April 14, 2007
  • Gulf News

  • Image Credit: Illustration by S.M.Arshad/Gulf News

The UAE suffers from a deep demographic imbalance, which is getting worse by the hour.

Some 360,000 people entered the county on work visas in 2006. According to 2005 population census, 8 out of 10 people living in the UAE were born abroad. If the current double digit annual economic growth continues, the percentage of non-citizen will reach 90 per cent by 2015.

Henceforth, by 2025, the citizens of the UAE will constitute zero per cent of the population.

A county with a zero percentage citizens is unprecedented in modern history and will make a new entry in the Guinness Book of Records.

The demographic figures alone are frightening and raise serious issues regarding national identity, citizenship, residency, multiculturalism, sustainability and, ultimately, the question as to who is going to be in the driving seat of this rapidly globalising society?

No easy answers are forthcoming and no frank discussion has taken place about the demographic dilemma facing the UAE. The problem is abundantly clear. But what is not so clear is what to do about it and how to effectively deal with its unintended consequences for the sake of the future of the country.

All the solutions that have been floating around for the last 30 years turned out to be totally unrealistic. The few rather practical ideas put through to tackle the growing demographic problem received scant attention. The authorities relentlessly pursue a policy of double digit economic growth that only perpetuates the chronic demographic imbalance.

Criticism

Lately Dr Jamal Al Suwaidi, a leading academic figure and the director of the government-run Emirates Centre for Strategic Studies and Research (ECSSR) has gone public with an unusually sharp criticism of the government's lack of seriousness in attending to the demographic nightmare in the country.

Dr Jamal was blunt in saying that the UAE has lost the demographic fight for good. To him the problem is beyond repair and the damage is lasting. The policy option he recommends is one of coexistence rather than resistance, which amount to a national suicide for the citizens of the UAE.

The logical conclusion of the proposed coexistence strategy could well be a new social contract whereby the local Emirati minority willingly accept to share power with the overwhelming foreign majority.

The first step is to grant residency which will eventually lead to a permanent citizenship. That could lead to the birth of a fast-globalising society with brand new national identity that is neither Arab nor local but rather multicultural and global in essence.

The end result of this strategy is a 21st century "salad platter" society that would serve as a model and would address all the apparent shortcomings of the "melting pot" model that is not going very well in the United States as it turns into a multicultural society.

Frightening

Naturally, Dr Jamal's frank views on this sensitive national issue generated some sympathetic response among the expatriate community in the UAE. But his rather unconventional ideas were not received well by the local minority.

Being as he is, a political adviser to General Shaikh Mohammad Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Abu Dhabi Crown Prince and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces, was Dr Jamal speaking for himself or the government? Is he expressing a purely personal opinion or is he preparing the ground for a new national strategy in the making?

That is not entirely clear. The statement could be just a wake up call to the government and the citizens of the country at large.

Whatever the real intentions, there is a limit to how much one can conceal the deadly demographic imbalance in the UAE. The numbers alone, which have reached critical level, are frightening. But the numbers, as frightening as they are, have not evoked any genuine public debate in the past 30 years. The recent trend towards foreign ownership of land and real state selling sparked some angry local reaction but did not last for too long.

A healthy debate about the population imbalance in the UAE is a national imperative. It is in the best interest of both the small local minority and the growing foreign majority. They all share the same concern: no one would want to rock the boat. It is nice to share in the bounty but we need to keep the delicate balance functioning. It is good to stay economically at the top where the UAE is at the moment but we all need to avoid living so dangerously close to the edge of the mount.

Dr Abdulkhaleq Abdullah is Professor of Political Science at the Emirates University, Al Ain.

Gulf News