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Commentary Last Updated: Apr 25th, 2007 - 01:22:56

They really were good old days, weren�t they?
By Linda S. Heard
Online Journal Contributing Writer

Apr 25, 2007, 01:20

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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 their nets.

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 glad.

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 fingerprints.

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 Gulf News.

�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 writes.

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 lane.

Linda S. Heard is a British specialist writer on Middle East affairs. She welcomes feedback and can be contacted by email at

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