When someone rambles on about the good old days to anyone
who�ll listen, they are likely in their dotage. For most people youth is a time
of new beginnings, personal exploration and exciting firsts so there�s little
wonder we tend to look back with rose-colored spectacles remembering the good
and ignoring the not so good.
The terms �good� and �bad� are, of course, subjective; yet
even so it seems to me that things aren�t what they used to be. There may be
those who�ll say they�re better, but I�m not so sure.
Take Dubai, for instance. When I arrived in Dubai during the
early 1980s I thought I�d died and gone to heaven. It was a place with endless stretches
of unspoiled beach. Goats, chickens and the occasional camel wandered along the
Jumeirah Beach Road where old men baked round loaves and fishermen repaired
There were no parking problems. Even a brief traffic jam
meant there had been an accident on the road. The only high-rise buildings
housed a handful of five-star hotels and the World Trade Center. People knew
one another and rallied around when someone was in trouble.
Business deals were still conducted on a handshake. Crime of
any kind was a rarity. People still left the doors to the cars and homes
unlocked. The air was clean and the sky blue. Dubai was a true haven of peace
and tranquility. For 16 wonderful years I woke up each morning feeling
incredibly lucky. Few in Europe or America had even heard of the place. I was
Two years ago I went back but instead of Dubai I found a
clone of Manhattan with locals becoming a rare species among the hordes of
foreigners. It�s glossy. It�s happening. Indeed, it�s a miracle of planning,
technology and sheer hard work but if you check out the reader�s pages of local
papers, you�ll discover endless complaints about astronomical rents, traffic
congestion that adds hours to the working day, surging living costs and
construction noise. When �progress� amount to a reduction in the quality of
life isn�t it time to call a halt?
There has been a discussion in this newspaper [Arab News] as
to whether Dubai should be held up as a model for the Arab world to emulate.
Back up 10 years and I would have agreed without hesitation. But now it faces a
serious problem of demographics with locals set to represent little more than 0
percent of the population by 2025. Currently eight out of 10 were born abroad.
In 2005, Watani, a national identity development program was
set up to remind Emiratis of their culture and roots while promoting good
relations between locals and the expatriate work force. It seems resigned to
the idea of the UAE remaining a melting pot of nationalities and cultures in
hopes it will become a unique hybrid society drawn from many global
Although many Emiratis are pragmatic, others feel swamped
with their identity as sons of the soil and as Arabs under threat. Dr.
Abdulkhaleq Abdullah, a professor of political science at the Emirates
University, Al Ain, recently aired his concerns in a column published in the
�The demographic figures alone are frightening and raise
serious issues regarding national identity, citizenship, residency,
multiculturalism, sustainability and, ultimately, the question as to who is
going to be in the driving seat of this rapidly globalizing society?� he
He complains that �the authorities relentlessly pursue a
policy of double digit economic growth that only perpetuates the chronic
demographic imbalance� and asks for an open debate on the issue. It�s a tricky
one to be sure.
There is no doubt that the UAE owes its phenomenal rise to a
far-sighted leadership that was willing to tap in to the skills of foreign
expertise and utilize a foreign work force.
Many expatriates have lived in the country throughout most
of their lives and have no other place to call home. At the same time, they
knew what they were getting into when they signed their employment contracts
and agreed to stay on the basis of a three- or five-year renewable visa. In
this case, should they be given permanent residence or nationality?
This is a question that only the rulers and people of the
UAE can answer.
I lived and worked in Dubai for 16 years, some of the happiest
of my life. I enjoyed a love affair with the place unlike any other. I still
recall how proud I felt to be on the Emirates� inaugural flight around the Gulf
in a leased plane. Who would have thought little Dubai would have its own
airline that would one day compete with the big boys. Who could have imagined
then that celebrities would one day flock to its shores to build their holiday
villas on man-made islands?
If someone had offered me permanent residency or nationality
on the day I quit its shores for good in 1997 I would have grabbed it without
hesitation. However, I never for one minute expected such a gift. I knew the
rules from day one. I accepted them and knew that one day I would have to leave
with a chunk of my heart irretrievably left behind.
Over the last 10 years I�ve come to realize that �my Dubai�
has disappeared into the mists of time like Brigadoon. But then again, this
just may be nostalgic ramblings of someone who has yet to make peace with a
changing world where globalization reigns and camels have no place in the fast
S. Heard is a British specialist writer on Middle East affairs. She welcomes
feedback and can be contacted by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.