“No city exists in the present tense” wrote James Stephens in 1923. “It is the only surviving mass statement of our ancestors, and it changes inversely to its inhabitants. It is old when they are young, and when they grow old, it becomes amazingly and shiningly young again.”
Nothing could more aptly describe Dubai, than the above statement, a city that forever has sought to reinvent itself through the influx of immigrants and the change of culture, both social and economic, as it seeks to scale new heights. The story of its immigrants changes constantly on its surface, yet not at all in its heart.
On its surface, contemporary immigrants seem totally different. They come from nations that are unlike the homelands of the past, and bring with them anxieties of assimilation and economic insecurity. Yet if we look at Dubai’s young history, these immigrants are no different from previous generations. Since independence, every wave of immigrants has been met with welcoming arms — yet there has always been a narrative about their lack of likeness.
Integration happens whatever the odds
Each wave has weaved their way into the fabric of the city. And even though some have left, many remained, drawn to the lure of opportunity despite economic challenges that have continually presented themselves. Today, as anti-immigrant sentiment sweeps throughout the Western world, and nativism has grown stronger, Dubai and the UAE have relaxed policies to seek out the best and the brightest, knowing that these immigrants bring with them economic opportunity and the raw materials that can be harnessed to great strength. From purchasing goods and services to investing in real estate and adding an entrepreneurial spirit in industries old and new.
A revitalising of the old
Perhaps most importantly for the city as a whole, immigrants revitalise neighbourhoods. During each recession, it has been these immigrants that have filled out localities, to fill out spaces that urbanisation has created. Even as gated communities sprang up to cater to the affluent, it has been the mid-income areas that have thrived on the influx of people, creating pockets of ethnic areas where different cultural ways have been expressed, from the historical Gold Souq to the art galleries of Al Quoz to the astonishing varieties of cuisine in La Mer and JBR.
Even as some communities have waxed and waned, others have sprouted up to take their place, giving the city the look and feel of a dynamic hub, teeming with potential opportunity for its inhabitants to capitalise on. The story of immigrants therefore is the story of Dubai.
Even though narratives regarding immigrants has been fuelled with anxiety throughout history, a couple of predictions seem safe. Firstly, the Chinese will play a prominent role in the country’s fabric over the next decade, as the city recalibrates itself to cater to the needs of this ethnic background.
Second, newer immigrant groups will start to take over some of the business activity of some of the older ethnic backgrounds. We already see this happening in areas of eCommerce, logistics, cuisine and finance. It is also a safe bet to assume that the children of immigrants will face a better economic future, especially aa more residents make the UAE their home, capitalising on the liberalised visa regime that allows investors, employees and students alike to take advantage of longer durations.
It seems safe to predict that immigrants from all over will continue to make Dubai their destination. No other city, with the possible exception of New York, has quite managed to capture the imagination of the world. For so many of the world’s immigrants, Dubai continues to epitomise their dreams, with its vitality, opportunity, cosmopolitanism and renown as a hub for those with outsize ambition.
For Arabs, Indians, Europeans, and Asians, the city has become the lightning rod for achievement, creating a hypnotic hold on dreamers over the past three decades. Despite the headwinds that have continued to blow over time, Dubai has achieved the rare status of being the tongue of the modern world, “a pocket edition of Babel” to paraphrase “Life” magazine.
It continues to march on, epitomising the dreams and the struggles of achieving. To generation, past, present and future, Dubai will be the city that represents all, as it forever reaches for the skies. No man will ever see its finish.
Sameer Lakhani is Managing Director at Global Capital Partners.