Sorry for the lack of updates lately, but (imagine this) I haven’t felt like I’ve had all that much to say! Until now, that is.
Living here is somehow incredibly routine and completely fascinating at the same time. There is such a blend of cultures and traditions. One of the side effects of this is that you can never be completely sure, when someone tells you something (at a store, for example) that they are telling you the truth, flat-out lying, or somewhere in between. I’ve had to condition myself to “believe it when I see it,” because many times, a worker will tell me something they think I want to hear, but that they know or suspect is not correct, just to get me out of their way without causing offense. As a result, I feel like I’m becoming a lot more pessimistic and less trusting every day I spend here. I’m actually not sure that’s a bad thing, but it’s strange to notice myself thinking that way.
If living in Korea taught me anything, it’s that you can’t always take what someone tells you at face value. The UAE exemplifies this to a certain extent, with some significant differences. I encounter much fewer language barriers here than in Korea, but I still seem to come up against a big cultural gap. Most of this revolves around efficiency, speed, and a general sense of time. For example, if I ask the local shop owner whether they have Diet Coke in stock, he might say, “Oh, let me see.” Ten minutes later he will re-appear (without apologies for the wait) and say they are out of it. I will of course ask when they might be in stock on it again, and he will say “tomorrow.” If I show up the next day (“tomorrow”) and ask for it, he will seem surprised that I’m even asking and tell me that they still don’t have it, of course.
That’s sort of a weird example, because Diet Coke is widely available and there’s no reason to wait 10 minutes for someone to check if it’s in stock, but that’s the basic idea. By the time he tells me for a second time that he will definitely have it in stock “tomorrow,” I am completely enraged that he could be this clueless about the operation of his business and the expected availability of various products, and further ticked off that he has so little respect for my time that he would get my hopes up by telling me something that he must have known was false.
This annoyance/anger/impatience, however, is my American/Western expectations coming up against his own very different standards. Most of the shop keepers are from Pakistan or India, where life (I suspect, having never been there) simply moves at a different pace, and words like “tomorrow” have a much looser definition than I’m used to. I really, really try to understand this, but it still seems very backwards to me. I come from a place where pizzas are promised in 30 minutes or less and actually are often free if not delivered within 30 minutes–and here, if they said 30 minutes or less and showed up after 2 hours, they would (I’m guessing) have absolutely no idea why the recipient of said pizza was at all put off by the additional 1.5 hour wait.
I still don’t think I’ll ever get used to waiting in “line” here, because there’s rarely an actual line, and people seem to show no hesitation to cut right to the front whenever they please. If I say anything to someone who cuts in front of me (which I often do), they seem genuinely surprised that I am upset by their actions. Um, really? You seriously don’t get it?! The concept of waiting in an orderly line is so very ingrained in my personality that I literally cannot grasp the idea of someone not understanding and adhering to it. People who have grown up here or lived here a long time react with a shrug and say “Relax, it’s not that big a deal.” But to me, that’s about as effective as having the same reaction when someone comes up and spits on my shoes. “Oh whatever, it doesn’t matter.” Nope, can’t tolerate that either. It just is not acceptable!
That was sort of a long detour from my original point, which is that I’ve been contemplating the massive growth here–almost all immigration–and noticing that there’s an underlying assumption that this growth rate will continue indefinitely. They’re still building apartments, malls, and office buildings at a breakneck pace and importing the labor to construct and operate these places just as quickly. I think most of the population of the Philippines is actually here and not in the Philippines itself. Emiratis are a wealthy and elite bunch, essentially paid a salary by their government and often given free housing and other benefits to boot. Far from taxation, Emiratis get to experience the reverse: the government actually shares its profits with the citizens.
It wasn’t always like this for Emiratis. From what I can gather, in the 1960’s, before the discovery of oil, they were mainly poor desert tribes, making a living by fishing, living in small huts in remote villages. Oil income–and independence from the British, who had for some time controlled the area–led to these villagers becoming very wealthy relatively quickly. In a period of a few decades, they built up a luxurious lifestyle. Today many (most?) Emiratis employ maids, drivers, nannies, gardeners, and various other “staff members.”
The influx of “guest workers” to do all these jobs–plus many other necessary jobs, such as working in stores, answering phones, teaching, household repairs, waiting tables at restaurants, and so forth–has only fueled the profit and contributed to the cycle of growth here even more, because of course, someone needs to house, feed, and transport all those workers. They’ll need places to shop and schools for their kids, too. And so on and so on. What’s happened is that 80% of UAE residents are non-Emirati. If I didn’t have half a dozen Emirati children in my class, I would rarely have reason to meet or even see an Emirati.
There are varied interpretations of the Emiratis’ apparent absence in public life here, ranging from the highly cynical or even hostile (“They’re just a bunch of snobs who don’t want anything to do with lowly foreigners like us”) to more optimistic and empathetic explanations (“They are intimidated by all the different languages and cultures and don’t know how to reach out without causing offense”). Personally, I think the reasons we don’t see many Emiratis around are as varied as the personalities of the Emiratis themselves.
Which leads me to the title of this post: What if? What if the local economy tanked and all the expats had no choice but to leave? I like it here, but it wouldn’t be a huge deal for me to return to the US or go somewhere else. I don’t have family ties here or anything like that. Nor do most of the expats who live here. If it weren’t for the jobs, we wouldn’t just need to leave financially, we would be deported, having no citizenship (it is impossible, as far as I know, for a foreigner to become a UAE citizen) and no work visas (as a result of having no jobs). And then what would happen? How would Emiratis manage? I guess, somehow, they would have to work it out, and I don’t mean to sound spiteful or anything…but when you know you live very nearby to people who live in the lap of luxury, simply by virtue of being born a certain nationality, it’s hard not to wonder about these kind of things.
It’s easy to draw parallels between the situation here and that of Mexican immigrants in the US, but I think those comparisons are superficial at best. For one thing, American citizens (as far as I know) still far outnumber non-citizens in the US workforce. In the States, there are massive numbers of illegal immigrants, whereas here, there seem to be very few. It is entirely possible for foreigners to become citizens in the US, sometimes even if they originally arrived illegally. We for the most part encourage (legal) immigrants to stay, assimilate, and be productive, taxpaying members of society. In the UAE, even if you were born and raised here and have never known any other home, if your parents are not Emirati (even if they were here legally on residence visas), then neither are you, and if you get to be 21 or so and don’t have a student visa or work visa, you must leave, period. The other major difference is not all Americans are wealthy or have household help (maybe not all Emiratis are either, but everything I’ve seen and been told suggests there are no poor UAE nationals), and there are many regions where US citizens will work low-wage jobs such as cashiers or gardeners.
To sum up, I doubt that many Emiratis want all the foreigners to get out of their country and leave them alone…but if we did, I really do wonder how they would fare without us.