Sunday, October 09, 2005

A visit to the UAE embassy in DC

Last week, I visited the United Arab Emirates (UAE) embassy in Washington, DC, for a lecture on the economic development of the country. I went partly because I am interested in the topic, but partly because as a former UAE resident, I was curious to see what the embassy looked like.

The place is a beautiful fort-like structure with a dome. As I entered, I was greeted by the familiar smell of strong Arabic perfume. When I looked around, I was tempted to roll my eyes because the interior was decorated with fake palm trees and looked like one of the many malls in Dubai - very reflective of the opulence common in the UAE.

Once we entered one of the rooms, we were served food, which some of us refused since we were fasting. Our hostess was a young woman named Reem, who was born and raised in Dubai. As someone who is UK/US educated in economic development, her role is to promote UAE's trade policies, in particular a bilateral Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with the United States. She gave all of us an impressive overview of the development of the UAE since the country's independence in 1971. The presentation focused on the rapid growth of this tiny "miracle Gulf country" and how Emaratis are rising as entrepreneurs and experts in various sectors.

Most people who are not familiar with the UAE are amazed by the Burj-ul-Arab hotel, the palm tree islands, and tourism & shopping in Dubai. What they usually do not know is that expatriates make up more than 50% of the population of the country. It is these non-natives that have built the country in the past three decades but are not recognized as citizens of the country. It does not even matter if a person is born in the UAE and is granted citizenship of her/his parents. They are not privy to benefits such as subsidized health care or cannot own their own homes (which is slowly changing).

During the Q&A session, my question to Reem was how the country was planning to move forward with the third generation of "expatriates" who are a vital part of the country, even consider the UAE as their home but are not recognized as citizens.

To my surprise, she was very open and frank with her response. She admitted that it was the expatriates who have built the country in the past few decades but because of the exclusive nature of the Emarati society, all the different communities end up living in their own silos. She explained that unlike the United States, citizenship to Emaratis was not about an attachment to an ideology but a particular lifestyle, culture and set of values. Moreover, as a tiny minority in their own country, Emaratis are unwilling to give up this privilege. She also pointed out that because the UAE was a constitutional monarchy, no one was missing out any political rights.

However, Reem emphasized that expatriates live in relative peace and comfort compared to other countries in the region and enjoy a privileged life. I agree that the UAE is peaceful but completely disagree with her latter point.

Many people wonder why my attitude towards Dubai is so unfavorable. I want to make it clear that UAE is in no way a dictatorial country like many Arab countries. I will also not deny that some people do strike the pot of gold and earn a revered status in society, but for those who do not, life can be harsh.

I tell people that while I was growing up, I saw Dubai through the eyes of my parents and saw how difficult their life was. I remember how laws in the UAE changed dramatically in the 90's - the rush towards capitalist economics resulted in the erosion of affordable housing and health care, creating a living standard that many expatriates can no longer afford. Many former migrants will talk about the charm of the "old Dubai" and how it will never be the same again.

I know how it feels to be insulted and treated as a second-class citizen but unable to do anything about it. When I was eleven, my uncle showed me the UAE visa on my Tanzanian passport driving home the fact that without it, I was truly nobody. And when I moved to the US about six years ago, I remember staring at the word "Cancelled" on my visa amazed at how 17 years of my life were erased by a mere strike of a pen.

Once the lecture was over, I stopped to talk to Reem and told her that I grew up in Dubai. It may seem ironic to many, but most people who live in the UAE, do not speak in Arabic - although Hindi/Urdu are not my native languages, I learned how to speak them due to the dominant South Asian community in Dubai. In my entire life, Reem is the second Emarati woman I have had a civil conversation with. Most Emaratis in the UAE I came in contact with were in bureaucratic positions, behind visa counters, or in shopping malls - an unfortunate indicator of how Emaratis and others live parallel lives in the UAE.

I was really honest about my feelings and told her that although I lived in Dubai for 17 years, it is the US that I considered my true home. In my opinion, I did not reject the country of my birth - it rejected me. As a Muslim woman, I was proud of Reem and the fact that Arab Muslim women were making strides in their career and asserting their rights as much as their male peers. At the same time, I was resentful of the fact that although we were born in the same place, she "belongs" to the UAE because she can trace her ancestry in the country and I cannot. Reem was frank about how she does not think this policy will ever change. She is probably right. But I will always hope that one day, non-natives will have the same claim to the country they are born in as natives do - so when we sing the national anthem and say "Biladi, biladi, biladi (my country, my country, my country)" it will ring true.

We had a great conversation and towards the end, she looked at me and sincerely said how sorry she was that I felt the way I did about the UAE. Then, she gave me a hug and insisted I take some of the leftover food home for my iftar.

When I stepped out, I had a smile on my face and a plate filled with delicious Arabic food - a token of something I cherish the most about Arabs - their hospitality.