Several decades of dramatic change in the United Arab Emirates have been accomplished as a partnership between the national leadership and population and a large migrant force which has contributed both brain and brawn. Arab states have supplied a great deal of both commodities in the form of professionals and labour, the skills required to build a new nation.
The estimated total population of the United Arab Emirates is approximately two and a half million. A major portion of that consists of Arabs from a diverse array of countries across the Middle East. The size of their various communities in the UAE reflects several factors. When abundant petroleum resources were discovered a quarter of a century ago, the newly federated UAE had a small population and few of the skills required for modernisation.
The call for assistance went out and many Arabs answered, some arriving from nations which had already developed a large educated cadre in fields such as petroleum and administration, others from more developed economies coming to prospect as commercial entrepreneurs, and others fleeing the chaos of war and destruction.
Some of these expatriates came and went, but large numbers stayed in the rapidly developing state to develop their careers, raise their families, and in many cases to acquire a great sense of attachment to their new home.
Several hundred Arabs had arrived before the federation in 1971. Egyptian educational personnel were seconded officially by the government of Egypt, some of them financed by Kuwait which was helping the Trucial States at the time. A number of doctors from Egypt and Iraq were present to watch the transition to federation, along with a number of traders from Lebanon, Palestine, Iraq, and Yemen. Mohammed Zafer is from Lebanon and works as Marketing Coordinator for Emarat. He first arrived in Bahrain in the 1950s to work as an accountant, was later recruited by Shell in Qatar where he spent almost a decade, and from there arrived in Dubai in 1971, just a month before the hand-over of power from the British. “I still remember when I first arrived. Dubai was nothing compared to today. But there were charming aspects to life back then, for example the sense of community and the more relaxed pace.
All of the Arab expats used to gather at the old Sindbad restaurant in Nassir Square. Now that place is just dust under the gigantic new towers there.”
The first years of development in Dubai were gradual, during which time qualified Arabs were recruited to help plan and construct the initial elements of infrastructure, from roads and power plants to schools and housing. Engineers and architects arrived from the Lebanon and Palestine, Egypt and Sudan, as well as educational personnel and civil administrators and medical personnel and traders.
A large number of Lebanese professionals started arriving in the mid-70s when the tragic civil war was shredding their country. “The influx was remarkable,” remembers Mohammed Zafer. “Lebanese professionals from all of the communal groupings started appearing, along with Palestinian refugees with Lebanese documents. Many of them arrived with no visa.
They would leave their travel papers at the airport and enter town to find a sponsor. Once a local arrangement had been negotiated, then they could retrieve their passport.”
That story highlights a point emphasised by the Arab expats who have resided in Dubai for many years. The aspiration for solidarity is one of the most persistent themes, and frustrations, of the peoples of the Arab world. The leadership of the United Arab Emirates has translated this hope into practical action by consistently offering solidarity and refuge to various Arab groups in their time of trouble. When disaster befell the Palestinians in 1967 with the Israeli conquest of the West Bank and Gaza, many thousands of Gazans with Egyptian travel documents made their way to the UAE. During the Lebanese civil war, both Lebanese and Palestinians came to Abu Dhabi and Dubai to make new lives. In the first Gulf War between Iraq and Iran, many Arabs from both sides of that grim battle were welcomed by Sheikh Zayed and Sheikh Rashid. After the invasion of Kuwait, many thousands of Kuwaitis found shelter in Dubai.
Maan Halabi is the Executive Director of the Al Habtoor Group, and arrived in Dubai in 1979. He has an Iraqi passport, though his family originated from Syria, and he has witnessed for almost two decades the solidarity exhibited by the local population with their Arab brothers. “The government of the UAE have always made every effort to make other Arabs feel welcome,” Maan says. “We were always treated as equals here.
The reception that was given to those who had encountered difficulties, such as the Palestinians, the Lebanese and the Kuwaitis, confirms the sense of united destiny. For that generosity the people of the UAE will always have a special place in our hearts.”
A survey of the various Arab national groups in Dubai and the UAE reveals some interesting patterns which reflect the regional history of development and politics and war.
Egypt contributed most of the original educational specialists required to launch the school system in the UAE. (Every young Emirati has a fond story to tell about their Egyptian teachers!) Many of the medical staff and ministerial personnel also came from the nation which is called ‘the mother of Arab civilisation.’
The Egyptian presence runs across the employment spectrum, from PhD consultants and construction, to the media, hotels, secretaries and agricultural labour. But it wasn’t always that way, says Mohammed Zaher of Emarat. “Nassir had restricted professionals leaving the country, only permitting it if they were officially seconded by the government.
This was typical of the socialist penchant for controlling everything. The Egyptian presence in the UAE only started to expand when President Sadat of Egypt came to power, as he granted his people the right to work overseas. Now all of the Arab states with a large population encourage this sort of economic migration, because they are eager for the foreign exchange.”
Included in the Egyptian tally are the Palestinians who came from Gaza and had been granted Egyptian travel documents after the Zionist aggression in 1948. These migrant Gazans tend to be concentrated in Dubai, whereas the Palestinians who arrived in the middle 70s to flee the Lebanese civil war congregated in Abu Dhabi, as many were qualified to work in the oil industry.
Historically, the Palestinian refugees in Syria have not tended to migrate so much, because the government of Hafiz Assad has bestowed on them the right to work and reside outside of the camps, as opposed to Lebanese restrictions on the refugees. There is little that occurs in the Arab world that does not resonate with echoes from a complex past.
Another of the large Arab communities in the UAE are the Lebanese. Because of their longer history of advanced educational facilities, there were many qualified experts to recruit for development projects in the UAE. The professions in which they have tended to take employment have been in medicine, service industries, and entrepreneurial partnerships with locals. A classic example of the potential of such collaboration is the business relationship forged between Khalaf Al Habtoor and engineer Riad Sadiq which formed the basis of Al Habtoor Engineering. Nearly twenty years later, that firm is the cornerstone of the widely diversified Al Habtoor Group, and has contracted for many of the major construction projects of the UAE.
The Arab expatriates from the other states in the region have frequently specialised in certain professions.
The Moroccans have contributed over the years many thousands of young men to the ranks of the national army. The Yemenis are well represented in the police forces of the different Emirates, although there are also quite a few well-known merchants originating from that nation. The Sudanese have arrived in fewer numbers than their Egyptian cousins to the north, and have tended to find employment in education and government ministries.
The Syrians are less numerous than the Lebanese, and their talents have ranged over a wide spectrum from commerce and engineering to mechanics, transport, and the various service industries.
The Jordanians have migrated in fewer numbers, except for the Palestinians with Jordanian travel documents, remnant from the period when the Hashimite Kingdom ruled Jerusalem and the West Bank. The Iraqis are represented by a similarly moderate number of employment migrants, typically being professionals who have sought better prospects in the Gulf, escape from war, and relief from the political intrigues of their troubled nation.
The Gulf states have had an interesting role to play in this story of the Arab contribution to the development of the UAE. Prior to the assumption of power by Sultan Qaboos, Omanis used to provide labour for farms and fishing, but after the change in regime in the Sultanate in the same year as UAE’s federation, the Omanis were summoned home. Now they return in droves for shopping expeditions and for business activities and for tourism, although there is still a large contingent employed in the police forces. The Saudis and Qataris arrive to boost the Emirati tourism industry. An increasing number of qualified Bahrainis have arrived to take employment in the thriving UAE economy.
The Kuwaitis have had a long history of involvement with the Emirates, even donating generous development aid prior to the discovery of oil in Abu Dhabi and Dubai. During the occupation of their nation in the early 90s, thousands of refugees were welcomed by the government of the UAE which led to many of them purchasing property and making various other long-term business investments in the UAE.
What are the social dynamics between these various communities? The Arab aspiration for unity is famous, but equally well-known are their many divisions. “There is a lot of friendly interaction between the various Arabs, especially at work,” explains Maan Halabi of the Al Habtoor Group.
“But of course groups gather socially on the basis of family and local area origins from back home. After all, we Arabs always appreciate the strong bonds of family and place, and we carry those prejudices with us like baggage.”
A more recent addition to the ranks of Arab managers in the UAE is Atieh Hamarneh, a Jordanian who was appointed in 1996 as General Manager of the Holiday Inn Resort Sharjah Continental. As a member of the younger generation of Arab professionals who arrived much later than earlier compatriots, he has an interesting perspective on social interaction between the Arab communities.
“I felt as a newcomer that integration was a little bit difficult. Many in the various Arab communities have been here for a long time, so each nationality tends to have their well-defined circles. In addition, Arab expats in the UAE are very business minded, so many of the relationships in those circles are therefore based on the business interests they share. And everyone is so busy here.
“That makes it hard for new people to be integrated. The younger generation is different, whether born here or newcomers. They tend to be more open minded.
“Here in the Dubai community, the locals are probably more open to genuine social relationships with the other Arabs than most other places in the Gulf. The late Sheikh Rashid was the first among them. When he died, his many Arab friends from other countries felt his passing like that of a father.”
The migration of millions of Arabs from all corners of the Middle East to live and work together in the Gulf states is one of the more fascinating and positive stories in the region during a grim 20th century.
The fact that the intermingling has happened at all and that it has been so productive is a historic achievement. Each of these migrants will eventually return home, having discarded many misconceptions about their fellow Arabs and having gained a greater sense of common identity.
The success of this large scale social experiment has been little noted, but is one of the more far-reaching consequences of the modernisation process of the Gulf states. The achievement demonstrates that the destiny of the Arab nation might indeed be unity.