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Christmas in Dubai

December 17, 2016

As it turns out, they celebrate Christmas in the United Arab Emirates – not the baby Jesus in a manger kind of Christmas, with gift-bearing Magi and harking of herald angels, but Christmas nonetheless. Dubai and Abu Dhabi, where I just spent ten days, were prolific with Christmas trees, reindeer, snow scenes, even a sax-playing Santa Claus outside a supermarket. Christmas has apparently become an occasion for giving presents to the children.

Islam is the official religion of the UAE. The largest mosque in the country, the Sheik Zayed Mosque in Abu Dhabi, was built by and is named after the first president of the UAE. Religion and government are indivisibly fused in the UAE; Islam is a primary source of legitimacy for the country’s absolute monarchy.

Yet they celebrate Christmas.

At first, I thought it was a show for the tourists. There were lavish Christmas displays in the lobbies of our hotels, and in the world-famous shopping malls. But there were also Christmas displays in non-tourist locations like office buildings and grocery stores.

So I asked about it. I went to a hotel employee I had become friendly with, an Indian immigrant named Sri who worked at the concierge desk. Sri acted like it was obvious: of course we celebrate Christmas, the UAE is a multi-cultural country. He mentioned a Hindu holiday that is also celebrated.

A guide on a bus tour similarly emphasized the UAE’s religious tolerance. A Kenyan named Anthony, the guide told us with manifest pride that Dubai has 16 temples and two churches. He didn’t mention that Dubai also has more than 400 mosques – built and maintained by the government, including vast numbers of small “cookie-cutter” mosques distributed around the city to enable Muslims to respond efficiently to calls to prayer wherever their day happens to take them. The UAE’s population is estimated to be more than a quarter non-Muslim, suggesting that the mosque-to-non-mosque ratio (400 to 18) may not be such clear proof of truly enthusiastic religious tolerance. And Anthony didn’t mention any synagogues.

The UAE is indeed a multi-cultural country, a country of immigrants. In 1960, the population of the entire country was less than 100,000. There were no paved roads or running water. Dubai and Abu Dhabi were two small fishing villages whose economies had once depended on pearl diving, an industry that was ruined in the 1930s by the Japanese development of cultured pearls. The people of the seven separate emirates that became the UAE in 1971 were Bedouin tribesmen scattered across 32,000 square miles of mostly desert and a few oases.

In the 1960s, oil was discovered in the emirates. The ruling emirs being remarkably farsighted, oil revenue has been invested extraordinarily well. Development has made the UAE a modern economic powerhouse. Dubai is the fifth most popular tourist destination in the world. The infrastructure of Dubai and Abu Dhabi is stunning, both visually and functionally. And both continue to build at a breathtaking pace.

In just a half-century, the emirates have developed from a region of desert-dwelling camel herders and village-dwelling fishermen into a hyper-modern country of great wealth. The UAE ranks near the top of the world in gross domestic product per capita, well ahead of the United States.

The country’s tiny population when oil was discovered couldn’t begin to support a modern economy with world-class infrastructure, so immigration was essential and population growth has been rapid. A census in 2005 counted more than four million UAE residents; 2015 estimates range as high as 9.5 million. UAE nationals, known as Emiratis, have become a small minority in their own country, estimates ranging from roughly 10 to 20 percent of the population. About half the population is from South Asia; other major immigrant groups are other Arab countries and Iran, and the UAE hosts a growing number of Western residents as well.

Immigration is frequent, but not open – meaning that immigration is permitted almost exclusively for purposes of employment, and very few immigrants are granted permanent residence, much less citizenship. Immigrants come to the UAE on work permits that must be renewed every two years, and loss of employment means denial of permit renewal and deportation.

The retail and service sectors are staffed by immigrants, who are somewhat euphemistically referred to as expatriots, or expats. In ten days in the UAE, every commercial interaction we had – at restaurants and hotels, in taxis, on tour buses, in stores, even on Emirates airlines – was with an expat. Most if not all of our interactions with Emiratis were governmental – immigration officials upon arrival and departure.

Native Emiratis are distinctly better off than most expats. I read that most Emiratis work for the government, and that Emiratis’ resistance to entrepreneurship and private sector employment has become an obstacle to the UAE’s efforts to diversify away from an oil-based economy.

Employment conditions for expats can be difficult. Construction laborers may have it the worst, a fact that comes to Western attention because of agreements between the UAE and Western cultural institutions and universities to construct affiliates in Abu Dhabi and Dubai.

All expats work under the constraints of close governmental oversight and regulation of their employment and their work permits. Their status is tenuous, and not just because they must retain employment to retain their residency. Even minor offenses, like causing a traffic accident, which might result in a fine if committed by an Emirati, can lead to deportation for an expat.

All expats live with a second-class legal and social status. An argument with an Emirati is a losing proposition for an expat, making expats vulnerable to exploitations and abuses. In an absolute monarchy, no one enjoys rights enforceable against the state, not even native Emiratis. But Emiratis enjoy rights, or at least privileges, enforceable against expats.

An unusually talkative young taxi driver, a very recent Pakistani immigrant, indulged my curiosity on our way to the Dubai airport to come home. He is from Peshawar (he was surprised that an American had heard of it); he complained about violence and terrorism in his home city, and corruption in the government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.

Still, his feelings about the UAE fell well short of wild enthusiasm. He was happy to work for the government-owned taxi company, because he gets a block of two months off every year, to visit his family in Pakistan, whereas employees of the private taxi company get only 45 days off every 18 months. But he complained about the time demands of his job. He has to work 12-hour shifts, either 5 a.m. to 5 p.m. or vice versa, and although he is not required to work seven days a week, he chooses to because living in Dubai is so expensive. The way he put it was, if he worked only six days a week, he would lose 220 dirhams – which I took to mean that 220 dirhams, about $60, is what he makes in a day.

He complained bitterly that no matter how hard or long he works, he can never become a UAE citizen. And he saw little hope for any opportunity to advance his education or move up the employment pay scale. What he sees in his future is driving a taxi in Dubai, followed at some indeterminate point by return to Peshawar with its violence and Pakistan with its corruption. It isn’t much to look forward to for an obviously intelligent, capable and diligent young man starting out his working life.

Expression of discontent even that openly is rare in dictatorships, but it does happen from time to time. Expat laborers do occasionally go on strike, even though organized labor activity is illegal – and strikers pay the price of deportation. Smaller expressions of discontent are a little more frequent, like my taxi driver’s disquisition on life in the UAE.

Along similar lines, Anthony of Kenya, our tour bus guide, commented when a car cut dangerously in front of our bus in traffic: “He must be an Emirati. An expat would never drive like that.” He wasn’t bragging about the driving skills of expats, he was complaining that expats and Emiratis are held to different standards of conduct, even in relatively trivial matters like driving etiquette.

The history of absolute monarchies is that eventually they fall. The monarchies of the UAE have delivered bigly for their people these last few decades. The emirate of Dubai had a close call during the financial crisis of 2008 – 2009, but was bailed out by neighboring Abu Dhabi and appears to have fully recovered its pre-crisis swagger. The emirates were nervous about the Arab Spring, but seem to have escaped that danger as well.

Eventually every hereditary monarchy falls to an idiot, or to a struggle between heirs, or just to a failure of governance or imagination. And people become less tolerant of dictatorship as they become more educated and wealthier. The emirs of the UAE have bought themselves an insurance policy, in the form of immigrant labor that saves native Emiratis from the indignity of hard work for low pay and affords native Emiratis a built-in lower class to feel superior to – which would be put at risk by dethroning the monarchy.

Still, if you believe as I do that the arc of history bends toward democracy, then you conclude that the emirs must fall, maybe in the next year, maybe in the next century. The creation of a perpetual expat underclass is similarly unsustainable in the long run – no people will forever abide second-class status.

I’m not sure if there are or aren’t lessons in the UAE for the United States. Emirati numbers have been overwhelmed by expat numbers, but Emiratis have nonetheless retained their own legal and cultural predominance in their country. White Americans remain a majority in this country, but have become quite fearful of losing their predominance as their majority has shrunk. Numbers are more decisive in American democracy than in Emirati monarchy, and the shrinking white majority knows it. White Americans thus have a choice: change the rules while they’re still in charge, so that majority status is no longer dispositive; or get used to the prospect of no longer being in charge of America.

This is not a new problem in the world, and humanity does not have an especially good history of handling it. Recent bad examples include the white minority that ruled South Africa, the Tutsi minority that ruled Rwanda, and the Sunni minority that ruled Iraq. Besides the U.S., countries facing the prospects of a change in majorities include Israel, which aspires to be both Jewish and democratic in a geography where demographic trends put the two aspirations into conflict.

Right up until November 8, I thought that Americans would handle the transition better than most. As of November 9, I’m not so sure.


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