A call for the United Arab Emirates to consider allowing expatriates to apply for citizenship has sparked a debate about national identity in the Gulf Arab state, where foreigners outnumber the local population by more than five to one.
Sultan Sooud al-Qassemi, a member of one of the UAE’s ruling families, is one of the federation’s pre-eminent commentators and also one of the most well-known Twitter users in the Middle East, with more than 250,000 followers.
Qassemi’s op-ed in a Dubai daily, suggesting that citizenship could be opened to long-time foreign residents who have contributed greatly to society, argued that Emirati society was ready for change.
“Perhaps it is time to consider a path to citizenship…that will open the door to entrepreneurs, scientists, academics and other hardworking individuals who have come to support and care for the country as though it was their own,” he wrote in the Dubai daily,Gulf News, in September.
The subsequent outcry suggested that many of his compatriots feel otherwise.
A Twitter hashtag in Arabic, “this writer doesn’t represent me”, quickly grew to dozens of outraged tweets.
“Don’t cosy up to foreigners at our country’s expense,” wrote one Twitter user under the name Saif Alneyadi. Many were bothered that Qassemi had written the article in English – with an eye presumably on a foreign audience – rather than to the Emirati people in Arabic.
UAE political scientist Abdulkhaleq Abdulla was a rare voice in support of Qassemi for bringing up the subject.
“I like a person who doesn’t hesitate to take up the podium to speak up bravely on social and political issues, Sultan al Qassemi being a model,” he wrote, to much Twitter abuse.
The objections ranged from worries about the added expense – the UAE spends tens of billions of dollars each year on free education, healthcare, housing loans and grants for its estimated 1.4 million citizens – to whether naturalised citizens could ever become true Emiratis.
But perhaps the biggest concern was what impact foreigners could have on the UAE’s dynastic political system and conservative culture – based on deep-rooted tribal values that are already considered under threat.
Although Qassemi’s suggestion has no chance of being implemented anytime soon, the reactions it stirred revealed a deep apprehension in a society that depends on foreigners as workers and for tourism but also tries to shield itself from becoming like them.
“Even without naturalising people, the state of our national identity is already in a very bad shape,” said businessman Abdullah al-Muhairi, 35.
The UAE is barely 40 years old, having come together in 1972 after living under British mandate for decades.
Abu Dhabi, the largest of the seven emirates and seat of the capital, funds much of the federal budget from huge oil revenues and regularly finances infrastructure and welfare projects in poorer emirates such as Ras al-Khaimah. Dubai generates much of its wealth from trade, tourism and financial services.
Before oil was discovered in 1950s, the mainly Sunni Muslim population lived in the desert or in small coastal towns, living off pearling and trade.
Only a few relics of that past remain among the ultra-modern skyscrapers and upscale malls, including the house of the Dubai ruler’s grandfather, spice markets and wooden dhows which still sail with goods to Iran and Somalia.
The foreign population ranges from low-paid construction labourers, mostly from south Asia, living in camps on the outskirts of major cities, to top executives who receive generous tax-free salaries. Tourism brings in 10 million more every year to Dubai alone.
Foreigners are allowed to drink alcohol in hotels and wear bikinis on public beaches, but their attitudes and dress are a sharp contrast to locals who are abstemious and usually clad in traditional monochrome robes.
They are often accused of offending the country’s values and occasionally prosecuted for breaking decency laws. In a recent case last November, a British woman and Irish man accused of engaging in sexual activities in a Dubai taxi were sentenced to three months in prison and then deportation.
NO POLITICS, NO PROBLEM
In addition to the cultural differences, many UAE citizens find it hard to believe foreigners would be willing to accept the country’s political structure.
Political power in the UAE passes from father to son or brother to brother within ruling families, some of whom are related. The Federal National Council (FNC), half of which is elected and half appointed, has limited parliamentary powers.
The country has so far not seen the popular protests that shook other parts of the Arab world in the past few years.
“After being granted citizenship, would political rights be the next step forward?” social commentator Jalal bin Thaneya wrote in a response to Qassemi in Gulf News.
Muhairi, who ran unsuccessfully for an FNC seat from Ras al-Khaimah, said naturalised foreigners were not likely to share Emiratis’ belief in the importance of stability above all else.
“We have no political parties, no political problems,” he said. “We have political stability … How do you guarantee that naturalisation will maintain stability?”
The UAE already views the imbalance between the local and foreign populations as a threat to national security and has taken steps to tackle the issue, including financing marriage funds, investing in fertility clinics.
As of 2011, the country allows thousands of children born to foreign fathers and Emirati mothers to apply for citizenship.
FNC member Musabah al-Qetbi said granting citizenship to others could skew the country’s population even more. He also questioned the newcomers’ allegiances.
“How can new citizens be loyal to the country? Love of the homeland has very deep roots in every citizen,” he said.
Qassemi told Reuters his purpose was only to ask that a process for citizenship be introduced, not open the door wide open to foreigners. He said he believed assimilating more people would enrich the UAE’s culture and identity, not damage it.
“Some of the critics seem to be so insecure that they are worried that in 1,000 years their identity will be eroded.”