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Khalid Al Ameri: Are there too many expats in the UAE?
April 25, 2015
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Exclusive to The Gulf Today

An expatriate or “expat” is defined as a person temporarily or permanently residing in a country other than that of their citizenship. In the case of the United Arab Emirates the term “expat” comes up in almost all aspects of day-to-day life. Companies, schools, communities, events, and news often break the social dynamics of the country into two buckets, nationals and expats.

A recent release of an unofficial breakdown of UAE’s population “by country” brought about the uncomfortable whispers of how the Emirati population (unofficially 11.3%) continues to dwindle in the face of a growing foreign population. The common arguments of “our culture is at risk”, “I don’t feel like we are in the UAE anymore”, and in a few interesting cases “they are taking all the jobs” are never too far from a social conversation on the UAE’s diverse population.

So I ask, are there too many expats in the UAE?

A sensitive question I know, some say “yes and something must be done about it!”, some say “yes but it is necessary given the level of growth being experienced in our country”, and some say “no and have become accustomed to the various cultures and social backgrounds that make the UAE unique.”

When we deal with human emotion we all have different comfort levels of how we feel in a certain environment, hence a single answer to this question is nearly impossible. However I think given the debate around the issue it is important to discuss. As I cannot speak for an entire population, here is how I, a UAE National, view the issue.

The first point I want to raise is that even though Emiratis account for around 10% of the population, we are still the third largest population by nationality in the UAE, behind India and Pakistan, and ahead of countries like Bangladesh and the Philippines. Personally that was a nice surprise for me.

What I have always wondered is why we tend to lump all the different populations together like they are one big group and label them ‘expats’. Whenever I hear that term I get this feeling that we are talking about one big force coming to take over our way of life. Sure they are all foreigners here, but they are all very different communities.

By grouping every expat community together we create a “them vs us” mentality that really doesn’t make sense. The reality is that Emiratis share a lot more in common with many of the ‘expat’ communities both religiously and culturally than they may not share with each other. It’s an important thing to think about that before we start painting everyone with the same brush.

Secondly, I want to talk about culture. Many have made the argument that we are losing important parts of our culture due to globalisation and the influx of foreigners in the UAE. My question is how? How do the 8 million or so expats prevent 1 million UAE nationals from practising their culture, their traditions, and their way of life? The answer is they don’t.

If anything UAE nationals are encouraged and empowered by the highest authorities to practise and spread our most historic practices and traditions. Events and festivals are held regularly to promote UAE culture and share it with the world.

Unlike other countries with large expatriate communities we don’t have a China Town, Little Italy, Bombay Boulevard, or Manila Drive. If a UAE national was living in a neighbourhood she or he grew up in that ethnically felt like living in another country then you could understand the frustration. However that doesn’t happen here, therefore we as citizens of the UAE need to ask ourselves, are expats pulling our culture from our hands, or are we loosening our grip?

Lastly from an economic perspective, we need to remember that our country has always been built on the back of strong partnerships between local and international communities in the UAE. Whether we like it or not having a large expatriate community is an economic necessity, and it’s not just a talent issue, it’s also a lack of numbers.

There simply aren’t enough locals to do all the work that is needed for the UAE to reach its ever increasing goals and potential. Infrastructure, houses, and apartments are not going to build themselves with almost zero national manual labour, hospitals and schools are not going to run themselves with under 1% representation of nationals in the healthcare sector and large foreign recruitment drives for teachers, companies are not going to grow themselves with Emiratis being only 10% population, you get the picture?

For me personally I don’t worry too much about the issue of demographic imbalance. That is not because I personally believe that we are all now global citizens, but because I have faith in the leadership of this country. They have built this country to what it is today, understand what it will take to build tomorrow, and know what it takes to get there.

I am pretty sure our leadership are well aware of the population numbers way before we got a chance to read them, so I take peace in knowing they will always do what’s best for the future of this country, its people, and generations to come. My job is to do what I can to take care of my family, work hard, give back, represent my country, and make all who live here feel welcome, safe, and at home, because that’s who I was taught to be as an Emirati.

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The author is a columnist on education and youth development.

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