Dubai: Humankind has both survived and thrived in the land now known as the UAE, dating back some 7,500 years.
The harsh physical and climatic environment combined with its scarcity of resources, engendered a strong and fierce independence and interdependence within different families and tribes.
The tribal leader, or shaikh, provided strong leadership in a setting where quick and correct decisions often meant the difference between life and death.
To survive, one had to be versatile, spending winter the desert with their flocks of goats or planting crops on hard-won terraces high in the Hajar Mountains. Then travel to the coast in the heat of summer to fish or take part in pearl diving.
Though briefly interrupted by the arrival of both Islam in the seventh Century AD and the British Empire, which imposed a truce upon the warring tribes in the early 19th Century; the traditional way of life continued undisturbed until midway through the 20th Century. Then the discovery of massive oil reserves under the Abu Dhabi sands changed everything.
Unleashing of a cultural tsunami
To assist in extracting the oil and developing the young country’s infrastructure, 100,000s of foreign skilled and unskilled workers from South Asia, the UK and the US began to arrive in the 1970s and 1980s. This unleashed a ‘cultural tsunami’ that has in part both produced a ‘rentier effect’ and amplified the impact of globalisation.
The UAE is similar to most GCC countries, by providing a cradle-to-grave welfare system for its citizens.
In the form of free education, subsidised housing, guaranteed public sector employment and free medical care. Many negative social effects have unwittingly befallen the Emirati population.
In plain speech, the ‘rentier effect’ means the age-old link between effort (work) and reward (income) has become severed. It has also amplified the negative effects of globalisation; insidiously spread via the internet and the mass media entertainment industry, as well as the foreign expatriate workers - who now comprise nearly 90 per cent of the total population.
The rentier effect
A recent example of the ‘rentier effect’ occurred in May 2012 when the UAE government ordered the settlement of defaulting personal loans of UAE citizens, who owe less than Dh5 million. This action thereby weakened the link between actions and consequences, reducing overall personal responsibility and accountability.
A recent study by the University of Sharjah, reported by Gulf News, found that 42 per cent of a sample of 193 Emirati children aged between 12 and 13 suffered neglect.
More than 25 per cent of the children reported being victims of violence in the home, with one child recounting that “she feels she was born to be beaten”.
Combining certain social facts with a poorly performing state education system that prepares only 10 per cent of high school leavers for higher education, appears a ‘neo-indigenous’ community in crisis.
A village of fathers
In my research, I interviewed two elderly Emirati gentlemen who remember a time when there one Arabic culture dominated the land.
One of the gentlemen remembers a time before 1980 when any work such as building a house or constructing a falaj (irrigation channel) was done by the Emirati men themselves.
The other remembers when working hard for his father on the small plots of agricultural land, hard-won from the harsh rocky environment, was natural and expected.
They feel the current generation has been “spoon-fed with a golden spoon”. After the 1980s, one of the men, who had been involved in education, felt learning - for the male Emiratis in particular - turned from “sugar to salt”.
Peter Hatherley-Greene has lived in the UAE since 1995. He used to work for one of the UAE’s largest post-secondary educational providers but resigned to pursue his PhD research begun in 2004.