It’s Christmas Eve. I’m sitting on a hotel terrace overlooking the Gulf of Oman. It’s 25 degrees (77 F) and sunny, but the breeze makes it feel pretty cold. I’m feeling relaxed despite the fact that our semester will drag on for two more agonizing weeks. I’m not staying. I’ve come only for lunch, driving a bit more than an hour through the desert and mountains for the quiet of the East Coast. I love the drive. From coast to coast you’re guaranteed to see sun and sand continuously. Whether it’s desert sand or beach sand, the contrast to the empty blue sky is beautiful and feels serene, something people may not expect when they set foot in the UAE – instead picturing the vibrancy and opulence of Dubai.
But there are probably a lot of things people don’t expect when they set foot in the UAE. It’s a country that grew from the desert in only 40 years, in part by employing a huge number of expatriates and guest workers. As a result, only about 15% of the people who live here are Emirati. Everyone else is from everywhere else creating an overwhelming experiment in multiculturalism.
In diverse environments, we can expect newcomers to fit into society, acculturating to the norms and customs of their new home, or we can allow them to maintain their home culture, from speaking their own language to wearing traditional clothing. There are also differences in the way we perceive immigrants and minorities. Of course, it’s possible to have antagonistic views of outsiders, but if we try to have a more inclusive perspective, we can hold either a colorblind ideology – one which maintains that at their core, people are basically the same – or a multicultural one, which maintains that people are different but encourages respect for diverging viewpoints and ways of life.
This is a country that recognizes that people are different. No one is really expected to adopt Emirati customs, which are influenced by tribal history and Islam. It is, however, both expected and appreciated that people be generally respectful of the norms of the society. The multicultural traditions here may partially result from citizenship laws which hold that Emirati nationality is passed from the father. In other words, it’s near impossible to become Emirati if you weren’t born that way. As part of the 40th National Day celebrations in December, however, Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, President of the UAE and Ruler of Abu Dhabi announced a decree allowing children of Emirati mothers (and non-Emirati fathers) to apply for citizenship after their 18th birthday. While it remains to be seen how this law will be applied, the result will no doubt enhance the diverse cultural fabric.
Research shows that multicultural ideologies promote the use of stereotypes without increasing prejudice against other groups. Acknowledging that people are different allows us to form clear and concrete (and actually, more accurate) sets of expectations about what different ‘types’ of people are like. This is both helpful and important for navigating cognitively overwhelming environments. Respecting and appreciating these differences allows us to see others as different without fear or hatred, allowing for a dissociation between stereotypes and prejudice. As a result, we might expect that within the country, people’s stereotypes about other residents are as strong and steadfast as the stereotypes that outsiders hold about the country itself, although – insha’allah – they would be less prejudiced.
So this is where I find myself today, celebrating a Christian holiday on the beach of a Western resort in the Middle East. The picture I paint may not be exactly what people would expect – well except, perhaps, for the sun and sand. But for the time being, for many of us (Africans, South and East Asians, Arabs, and Westerners alike), it becomes a somewhat modified version of home, albeit quite a ways away from home.