Are expatriates 'going extinct'? We would all be the losers

The decades ahead will continue to hold many opportunities for expatriates - and the UAE will be the better for it.

Throughout history and across civilisations, people have always sought better lives for themselves and their families, and if this meant leaving home to make it happen, so be it. This is the way of the world.

Whether it's 19th century Irish immigration to the US, the recent migration of Polish nationals to the UK, or the movement of Indians (and so many others) who call the UAE home, it is all for the same reasons: to prosper economically and also socially.

Expatriates now make up between 80 and 90 per cent of the UAE's population. Whether that ratio is healthy for the country is open to debate. But when you look at the speed of economic development and the population required to deliver that development, for Emiratis - unfortunately - demographics are not on our side.

But where does the story end? Let's fast-forward to Abu Dhabi's critical 2030 milestone. What will society look like? More than industrial development, attractive museums and a state-of-the-art transport network, I am interested in the living, breathing humans who will make it tick.

Will we see a UAE that has maintained the same demographic balance as today? Or a UAE where the national population is so scarce that the very sight of a man in a kandura or a woman in an abaya and sheila is a moment when the cameras come out?

Or will we see a country where Emiratis have become a majority, working in all sectors, from clerks to CEOs? Pardon the cliché, but only time will tell.

One opinion comes from the business writer Gavin du Venage, who wrote in The National last weekend that around the world, "soon enough, we [expatriate professionals] will be extinct".

Extinct? I thought that was a bit dramatic at first, but now I do feel there may be a bit of truth in this.

To give credit the writer did point out that "generalists", jack-of-all-trades types, have a hard time finding foreign employment now. And in many countries, including the UAE, hiring policies favour citizens for high-paying specialised jobs.

When you look at it from this angle, you can see that yes, a certain type of expatriate will become extinct. The ease of employment that expatriates were accustomed to in the Middle East before the economic crisis that started in 2008 will in many cases cease to exist.

But the idea that expatriates will vanish altogether would be, in the case of the UAE, a very scary thought indeed, should it turn into a reality.

The first reason can be found in simple demographics. There just are not enough Emiratis to orchestrate the country's speedy economic development. Expatriates from many walks of life have left their homes to contribute to the ambitious plans set out by our leadership.

And in all honesty, from an Emirati point of view, we are not doing much to help. The average number of births per family has dropped significantly in the last generation. Having 10 or more children was seen as normal during my father's time, but because of social and cultural shifts Emiratis are now settling for smaller families. The norm is close to four, which creates a question: is the birth rate high enough?

A second reason involves education and development. The UAE has thrived because we have allowed some of the top institutions from across the world to set up here, bringing their intellectual property and people who are dedicating their lives to creating higher education standards, better qualifications and a talented Emirati population.

You only have to look at the landscape to get a feel for the opportunity these institutions and their faculty offer young Emiratis: London Business School, MIT, Harvard, INSEAD, New York University … the list is long, and I hope it keeps getting longer.

The third and last reason, one that is dear to our hearts, is culture. The history of the UAE has been built on the backs of many nationalities. Emirati pearl divers, Indian tradesmen, British and American oil advisers and many others have played their roles in shaping the UAE and what it stands for today.

To suggest that any part of the UAE's population mix will become "extinct" is like saying a piece of our history will be taken away; a hard pill to swallow.

Do I think expatriates will become extinct? No. Do I think that Emiratis and expatriates will continue to work hand-in-hand to benefit this great nation? I'll bet all I have on it.


Khalid Saleh Al Ameri is an associate at a development company based in Abu Dhabi

Published: March 20, 2012 04:00 AM


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