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KAI RYSSDAL: To find where we are on a map, go to the really skinny part of the Persian Gulf, the Straits of Hormuz. Run your finger south, down the coast a bit. That’s the UAE. There are seven emirates in all. Abu Dhabi and Dubai are the two you know. The other five you’ve probably never heard of. There are, plus or minus, 1.7 million people in Dubai. Most of them, the teachers and construction workers, aren’t from here. They were imported to drive Dubai’s growth. Best estimates are that only 15 percent of the population is native-born, and if things keep going the way they are, that ratio could fall even lower.
Marketplace’s Stephen Beard introduces us to Dubai’s vanishing breed, the real Emiratis.
STEPHEN BEARD: I’m in one of Dubai’s palatial shopping malls and there’s a stall here that sells language teaching aids. Now, I’ve seen plenty of stalls of this kind in London, but nothing quite like this. There’s everything here from “Teach Yourself Navajo” to “Brush Up Your Luxembourgish.” This is the most multinational city on Earth. In this mall you will see people from maybe 150 countries. You will also see the occasional Emirati citizen. You can’t miss them. The men wear crisp white gowns called “kandoora” and the women are dressed in flowing black-hooded cloaks called “abayas.” Emirati national Sawsan Fikree says this national dress is practically mandatory.
SAWSAN FIKREE: My people will reprimand me. They will look down upon me if I’m not wearing the national dress, because there are so few us, and this is a kind of a survival technique where we have to reinforce it to each other.
Even though they’re heavily outnumbered, Emiratis are reluctant to criticize the constant influx of foreigners. This, after all, is the basis of their prosperity, but doubts are beginning to creep in.
MOHAMMED HARIB: There is a lot of anxiety about the direction we’re going in, and are we taking slow steps that are studied, or we are just jumping on the risks and saying, “Hey, let’s build this place up?”
This cartoon, created by Mohammed Harib, reflects the growing unease. It tells the story of four old Emirati ladies struggling to live a traditional life in the middle of booming Dubai. Mohammed Harib loves the boom, and he welcomes the foreign influx, but only up to a point. He began to have reservations when his idea for the cartoon was rejected by the foreign boss of a local TV company.
HARIB: All the nationals working there loved the idea, and they say “We just need to take it to the CEO,” and then we end up going to the CEO, who’s not from this country and who has been here just for two months, so he says he looks at it and he says, “Why do I want to invest in a cartoon,” and then it kind of dies there, so that affected, you know, my way of thinking.
He now believes that foreigners are too dominant in the cultural life of Dubai. Sociologist Rima Sabban says many locals fret about their own shrinking identity and status.
RIMA SABBAN: They feel like they are probably would disappear in this what has been described as a tsunami, a people’s tsunami, so they feel it and they’ve been asking the government to do something about it.
DUBAI AD: Dubai has created a haven for property buying: no income tax, no capital gains tax, no VAT . . .
With ads like this, the government has lured in hundreds of thousands of foreigners to work, to play, to buy real estate, but Rouiya Jewad, of the HSBC banking group, says the locals have been missing out. Foreign corporations here prefer to employ foreigners.
ROUIYA JEWAD: UAE nationals who don’t have the experience would not be the preferred choice for the organizations to take on, as opposed to people we can get from outside in terms of experience and knowledge and exposure.
Emiratis don’t have to work, and most of them don’t. It’s believed half of all citizens of working age are unemployed. They get generous welfare benefits, up to $5,000 each a month and free housing. Many others do undemanding but highly paid jobs in the public sector, but the government is worried that foreigners now fill most of the key posts in private companies. It’s ordered certain key businesses, like banking and media, to recruit more locals. It’s set a quota of 40 percent, a vital measure, says Rouiya Jewad.
JEWAD: If we do not move on it, if we don’t try, we are going to be left behind, and sooner than later we would realize that there’s no place for us in our own country. It becomes very, very important for us to start developing ourselves, or we will be left behind.
The citizens of Dubai seem certain to shrink to an even smaller, albeit pampered, minority in the years ahead. That could be a problem. If they are not playing a bigger role in their country’s economic success, the sense of estrangement will surely grow.
In Dubai, this is Stephen Beard for Marketplace.