Last week I wrote an article in which I discussed why long-term and committed residents should be granted long-term residency in the Emirates. Some of the comments I received used specific words such as citizenship. I find the confusion between residency and citizenship highly problematic and so a clear distinction is in order.

The United Arab Emirates is a young country, but it is a collection of much older principalities and emirates. These individual emirates have attracted a consistent flow of migration from Yemen, Najd, Balochistan, southern Iran, Hyderabad and eastern Africa. While every migration brought with it cultural specifics, there remained a cohesive umbrella that absorbed some facets of the migrating cultures but still defined what it meant to be what came to be known as Emirati.

I've always been fascinated by Jeddah - it is a very interesting social experiment. Due to the pilgrimage journeys, the people of Jeddah come from diverse parts of the world: Central Asia, the Levant, Egypt, east Africa, Makkah, Yemen and Turkey, among others. However, when you visit Jeddah you feel that there is a unifying theme for the city, a culture that unites all. This culture is that of Jeddah - they call it 'Hejazi'. Granted, the migration trends to Jeddah were not as bottlenecked as those to Dubai and other cities in the UAE. Also, there was always a strong absorbing population in Jeddah, unlike in the UAE. However, it still makes for an interesting benchmark.

As a modern federal union, the UAE proudly hosts many people from different parts of the world. Many of these people have started families here and, more importantly, their children have developed strong ties to the UAE - ties so strong that they feel more at home in Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Sharjah than they do in Beirut, Tehran or New Delhi. What frustrates many of these Dubaians, Abu Dhabians or Sharjahians is that their identity is sometimes included in the same category as what we call 'recent expats'. And so they have started wondering about the value of their existence here and the measure of their belonging to their respective cities.

This and the examples of other countries (such as the UK, the US and Canada) has led to calls for citizenship. Here is my take on this. As an Emirati, I support naturalising any person who has spent a considerable amount of time in the UAE (five, 10, 15 years - someone qualified must set the right number) in which they have shown two qualities: first, the ability to contribute positively to the growth and development of the UAE; second, and more importantly, they must have shown love and respect for Emirati culture and embraced this culture in their daily life.

What is Emirati culture, you ask? It includes the food we eat, the way we dress, the way we wed, the way we mourn our dead, how we spend our Ramadan and how we celebrate our Eids. It also includes our music, poetry and sports. Some have said to me that isn't culture - I told them that is our culture.

Some have said it is inconceivable that the UAE will not grant citizenship to people who spend 10 years here when it takes much less than that to be naturalised in the UK, US and Canada. Here is what I think of that argument. In the case of the UK, it is a former colonial power and so it is the ironic destiny of the colonisers to be colonised by the subjects of their colonies, quid pro quo and c'est la vie. We haven't really colonised anyone but we have absorbed migrants from those regions that we governed for a short while.

In the case of the US and Canada, there is a more fundamental issue there. In those countries, whoever has the authority to grant citizenship to immigrants is fundamentally an immigrant too. Basically, there are no significant numbers of natives in these countries, let alone any in a position of power. And so the moral high ground that distinguishes those who have descended on a land and those who have been there for a significant amount of time is non-existent. Furthermore, these countries often provide citizenship mainly for political reasons (political asylum), economic reasons (attracting funds) and social reasons (refugee migration). The UAE does provide assistance and support to those who fall under the above mentioned categories in varying ways, however citizenship should be granted based on cultural reasons only.

Why, you ask? Well, because we would like to preserve as much of our culture as possible. I do not want to find one day that many elements that distinguished the UAE have just evaporated under the guise of globalisation - our differences make us interesting. Just to be clear, I will reiterate my position: I support naturalising anyone from anywhere in the world as long as they embrace our culture. This does not, of course, discount the contributions that the backgrounds of those who embrace our culture will bring to the table - in fact, we welcome them. But as in the example of Jeddah, I'd like the UAE to maintain a local context.

- Mishaal Al Gergawi is an Emirati commentator on socio-economic and cultural affairs in the UAE.

Your comments

I work for a real estate firm in Dubai and my father migrated to this peaceful land from Balochistan in 1968. He has been working with Dubai Police since the early 1970s. We are 10 siblings and our culture is completely Emirati. We even look and speak like Emiratis. But while we may dress alike, listen and share the same Arabic poetry, we still possess Pakistani passports. Yet, we are happy that we are in a place of peace and feel like this is our home. However, sometimes it hurts us when we have to show our identity.
Jamil A. R. Najman
Posted: May 31, 2009, 12:34

I am an Iranian and I have a lot of cousins who are from the UAE. My father moved to the country when he was 12 years old and I was born here. The country has made me the person that I am today, but unfortunately, if I want to retire, I would not be able to do it here. I guess it would be hard for me to live in Iran. Maybe a different passport for citizens would help and I?m sure there are a lot of people like me out there.
Sassan Kamali
Posted: May 31, 2009, 11:55

I am the fourth generation of my family in this country. My family migrated from India way before I can remember. We have already embraced the culture of UAE as it was a part of our lifestyle when we were growing up. We celebrate the UAE?s National Day and sing the national anthem with the same enthusiasm as all the Emiratis do. I feel the same patriotism toward UAE as I do towards India. Although our religions are not the same, we respect the holy month of Ramadan and celebrate Eid. I also support the Al Ahli Club in football! If given a chance, I would like to become a citizen of this country but since that is not granted, I will always be a ?recent expatriate?.
Radhika Sagar
Posted: May 31, 2009, 11:55

Very well said, Al Gergawi! I am pleased to read about the ideas behind acquiring Emirati citizenship. I strongly agree with the fact that in order for the culture to survive, the person being granted citizenship should have a strong knowledge and love towards Emirati culture. In Canada, I am witness to the real Canadian culture slowly vanishing. When we see a Canadian in the country, it?s like the person has travelled from a different planet and is not an original Canadian. Although I am not an Emirati citizen, I was born and raised in Dubai and have made myself an Emirati, at heart. It?s not so hard to do it! I learnt the language, listened to its ethnic music, celebrate National Day on December 2 by decorating my car with Emirati flags even in a temperature of minus 20 degrees and love to eat Emirati food. I strongly believe that if one?s heart is in a place, that is all that matters. That, and a passport from a country that is still unmatched by any other in this world ? the UAE.
Farhan Malek
Posted: May 31, 2009, 11:15

I don?t know how I should be treated. My father spent 33 years in this country. My brothers, sisters and I were born here. I love the UAE. I have been here since I was born in Rashid Hospital in Dubai, in 1978. However, there is no difference between someone who came to the country today to start life and someone like me. All the time, I feel very insecure. I cannot consider myself to be from Pakistan, because I haven?t spent much time there. It appears I am from no place ? neither Pakistan, nor the UAE.
Irshad Khan
Posted: May 31, 2009, 11:12

I think providing an Emirati nationality to those who have served the country and have positive intentions for its culture and traditions would help in the growth of the country and improve its global image, too. Of course, people who are born here and have lived here for their whole life have more affiliations with the UAE than their home countries. But there is no distinguishing point between a person who has lived here for 20 years and someone who came into the country just yesterday. Al Gergawi has raised a very good social issue and I think sincere thought should be given to his thinking.
Shahbaz Ahmad Rashid
Posted: May 31, 2009, 11:00

I support the editorial 100 per cent. It is the first time I have heard an Emirati speak for residency or ? to a certain extent ? citizenship, after meeting certain criteria, which I totally agree is reasonable and justified. However, when some Arabs or organised forum talks about naturalisation and Emiratisation to protect culture, we feel so alien, even though we have been brought up here all our lives. I believe that those who have not embraced the culture entirely should at least be offered a permanent residency, if not citizenship in the country.
Posted: May 31, 2009, 10:51

I fully agree with Al Gergawi who wrote in his editorial that every country has to set its own rules as to whom to accept as a citizen. The rest of the world is not a reflection of the UK, USA or Canada! Why is it always that whatever these countries do is regarded to be the law for the rest of the world? However, UAE should set out fair rules on its choice of naturalisation. I know quite a number of individuals who have lived and worked in the UAE for over 30 years and are Arabs, who have raised families and are about to retire. They are not only Arabs but have assimilated the culture of the country and have continuously been requesting to be accepted as citizens, because to them and their children, this is their home. They are Emirati in every sense of the word. I know a family that completely refused to go to the UK while all their extended family members and friends immigrated to UK after 5 to 10 years in the UAE.
Shaikha Mohammad
Posted: May 31, 2009, 10:30

My family and I have been in Dubai since 1976. In 2002, my parents and sisters were forced to return to Sudan since my father retired from employment. Now, they come to Dubai every three months. They cannot leave Dubai and they cannot live in Sudan. It is such a difficult situation, and I am the only link to them since I am working here, so they can visit Dubai. We don?t know for how long we can continue like this. We?ve applied for UAE citizenship but have not heard anything after that.
Posted: May 31, 2009, 09:57

I think what Al Gergawi said was very good. Many look at the UAE passport as some sort of access to everything, which is a wrong take! The country has a well-respected culture and I think it takes a lot of respect to be an Emirati. I also think that giving out UAE passports, according to the qualifications the writer mentioned as examples, can also contribute in increasing the percentage of Emiratis in the UAE. However, all in all, this was a good read.
Mousa Nimer
Posted: May 31, 2009, 09:54

I believe that the idea of providing citizenship for expatriates who contribute to the UAE over a period of time is an excellent idea. As a parent of an Abu Dhabi born child, we look upon this country as our current home and a place to raise our family and would therefore like a stronger long term link other than a three-year stamp in our passport. However, how do your ?test? someone on their commitment to embracing Emirati culture?
Samantha Amai
Abu Dhabi,UAE
Posted: May 31, 2009, 09:46

Citizenship should not be given. It can only be the residency for an individual to live and work in the UAE, as it has a very rich culture. This is explained in the comment ? it is the way they wed, way they dress and the way they behave. There is no community in the whole world that welcomes residents and make them feel at home, something one cannot feel in other countries despite being granted a citizenship! UAE is the best.
Khaja Moiz Al Deen
Posted: May 31, 2009, 09:15

The comment by Al Gergawi touched my heart as I am one of those who has been in this country for the past 30 years. I have grown up here and have adopted the culture, food and way of life. However, I fear to go back to my home country as I will be a stranger there. But, [right now] there is no way I can stay, I have to leave at some point.
Firdous Quraishi
Posted: May 31, 2009, 08:21

Good Speech.
Posted: May 31, 2009, 07:50

No person will ever completely integrate into a different culture. I believe that the UAE not giving their passport out is about protection of their culture. Why do people need citizenship? Because they have been here for a long time? Why are people not content enough with their own culture? Why are people so fast to abandon their own culture/heritage for a passport? One passport is more valuable than another because of the toil of that particular nation. The UAE is one of the last countries to hold on to this, which I personally admire. Let people have residency here, let people live here, but there is no need to give them a certificate to say ?you are now one of us in all forms?. I think if everyone were proud of their own heritage there would be no debate on passports.
Posted: May 31, 2009, 07:19

I would like to comment about this Opinion article by Mishaal Al Gergawi, which is quite impressive. I spent six years in Dubai, UAE, and enjoyed the time. I agree with the writer about [the importance of] culture, for that is what the UAE and Arab countries have. I want to add something here. When people go to the UK, US, Canada or Europe, they start wearing clothes like them, eat like them, sometime host parties like them and obey all the laws. It is interesting that if you are in France, Spain, Germany or the UK, and if you don?t speak their languages, they don?t talk to you even in the government offices. So when it comes to the UAE, why do they forget that its a very old culture and that is its identity. How many immigrants read and write Arabic after living in the UAE for more then 20 years?
Ahmad Abbasi
Posted: May 31, 2009, 06:16

Culture is what we live by and what we are used to. I was born in the UAE and my father migrated here when he was 18 years old. Today, I am a father of one and among the youngest of my family. I?ve almost forgotten my mother tongue because we have become so used to the language of the country. Will we ever have a chance to serve this great country? We?re still guessing. However, I?ve always been and always will be an Emirati at heart.
Abu Dhabi,UAE
Posted: May 31, 2009, 02:05