Students from Zayed University at The UAE Through its Expats’ Eyes conference in Dubai. Image Credit: Ahmed Ramzan/Gulf News

Dubai With some 85 per cent of the country’s population made up of foreigners, there remain some concerns among UAE nationals about outside cultures’ influence on local language and culture, which is shaped by Arabic and an Islamic-Arab heritage.

Emiratis of the old guard as well as the young generation shared their views in a candid discussion on a weighty aspect of their lives — the overwhelming presence of expats in their land.

The outlook, hopes and concerns voiced by learned UAE academics and undergraduates flowed during a recent one-day Dubai conference that explored how expats view UAE society.

However, the delegates stressed time and again the exemplary appreciation and hospitality they share with some 200 nationalities that call the UAE a home away from home.

The conference, The UAE Through its Expats Eyes, was organised by the Dubai Culture and Scientific Association and Zayed University (ZU).

Land of tolerance

Prominent Emirati political science professor Dr Abdul Khaliq Abdullah, one of the conference moderators, later told Gulf News in an exclusive interview that the UAE was a “land of tolerance” whose “success story needs to be told by all, Emiratis and expats.”

However, he also raised issues with occasional incidents where foreigners unintentionally “rock this boat”, alluding mostly to the clash with local laws governing public decency and dressing norms.

“I think we’re all in this together, expats and citizens. It’s in the best of interest to all to not rock this boat. This boat has benefitted us all, bought us security and prosperity. We should do everything possible to maintain that relationship between the two sides,” Dr Abdullah said.

“However, there are some issues that could sometimes come up. It falls on all of us to watch for it. Expats have been, from my perspective, overwhelmingly positive for us [UAE nationals].

“But some could get carried away, act indecently. It’s important to keep the stability and identity [of Emiratis]. The local culture needs to be respected, everyone should show mutual respect. We come from different backgrounds [and] sometimes they [foreign cultures] are imping on each other. They should be in line with each other. Sometimes they are not aware or ignorant of this. This applies to all communities, but to be candid and frank, it’s probably usually Britons. I think a better understanding and awareness would be good.”

Dr Abdullah clarified he was referring to incidents involving public displays of affection, decency and dress codes.

No xenophobia

He stressed: “I don’t think expats will find a more welcoming people than the UAE. We’ve accepted the fact they [expats] are here. We’ve not seen any xenophobic or anti-foreign feelings for 40 years [since UAE independence].

“We [Emiratis] have kept our part of the deal and they [expats] should adhere to their part of the deal, they should not come up with unrealistic demands.

“The success story with the lessons needs to be told and it should be told by all of us [Emiratis and expats]. And the [trait] that stands out most is tolerance of each other.”

Dr Abdullah said that harmony was especially imperative as “today, the US and Europe is less tolerant than ever before. There is growing Islamophobia. And in all this, the UAE is being seen as a land of tolerance.”

However, he explained that the UAE society is “not a melting pot for sure. It’s a country that has its own history. It’s almost impossible for it to become a melting pot. It’s not like the US, Canada or anything else. The [UAE] demographics don’t allow it. To say that would be out of touch with reality.

“Expats enjoy it, appreciate it as they are. I think we’re doing good so far, let’s keep it that way, without pretentions.”

Challenge for youth

He also conceded that the UAE youth face an even more multicultural demographic. “The younger generation have their own things to attend to. They are much more global. They face the challenge of a more globalised UAE society. And that’s as much glamorous as it’s a headache.

“It will be up to them to see how they will shape all of this, tolerance and preservation of culture together. I’ve full confidence that they have the resources and capacity for this.”

He mentioned a recent survey of ZU students on how they perceive expats — with a common concern being the impact on Arabic. “This students’ concern is something shared with the rest of the country. Arab is the fundamental icon for our culture. Many of us feel that some of these pillars are under strain.”