By Ali Alsaloom
The United Arab Emirates has moved from the camel to the Cadillac in a very short amount of time. Where our Bedouin forefathers once lived just to survive another day in the punishing desert climes, we drive air-conditioned cars to air-conditioned malls. So it might seem strange to suggest a return to the camel, yet that is exactly what the next generation of Emiratis must do to allow our country to flourish.
Just so you know, there is no way I’m giving up my 4×4. Modernization has brought unbelievable things to us, al hamdullah, but as our ancestors knew all too well, resources don’t last forever, and we must plan for a day when our oil wells run dry. What I find interesting is that one of the growing industries here, tourism and hospitality, not only helps diversify our economy, but encourages us to look to our heritage for inspiration.
I believe the UAE only gains from inviting more and more Westerners to live with us; we receive valuable advice, while the expats become ambassadors for our country, telling people back in their homeland about how respectful we are toward other cultures and how dedicated we are to our religion. This positive word of mouth encourages more people to come to the UAE to experience our culture and so on and so on.
Others do not share my optimism. They think that Westernization will surely threaten our way of life. Certainly, there is an ignorance of the Gulf region, which you can witness just by going to a mall in Dubai or Abu Dhabi. There, expats dress immodestly and use offensive language, behavior that runs contrary to the teachings of Islam. I admit it will be a big challenge when developments such as Saadiyat Island and the Palm Islands bring even more diversity. We must make it clear to newcomers that while the UAE is a very open country, we are still an Islamic country.
The solution, however, is not to close ourselves off. We need to invite more local people to study intercultural awareness and Emirati culture, and share their knowledge as cultural ambassadors and tour operators. We also need to embrace the positive aspects of Westernization, and stop exaggerating its effects. Again, part of the solution is to look to our past. When the late Sheikh Zayed founded this country, he invited a lot of expat Arabs to live here. No one complained when we started eating hummous or tabbouleh! We love Bollywood movies and sell Persian rugs. We take what we like from other cultures. So now there are English speakers. And what do you think Emiratis scream when one of our beloved footballers scores? That’s right, “Gooooooal!”
I hope we view the future as an opportunity to strengthen our values. We should be confident that we are capable of handling our culture. Each family will still raise their children themselves, so that no matter how westernized they become, those kids will be Muslim and speak Arabic. In other words, if we teach Emirati youngsters to look to the camel, we will easily overcome any humps in the future.
Let us know what you think in the comments.
Ali Alsaloom is the author of Ask Ali, a book that helps non-Arabs navigate the sometimes tricky seas of Arabic culture. A professional speaker, consultant and self-appointed “ambassador to the Middle East,” he was named a Local Hero by Time Out Dubai in 2008.