Behind the barrier lies the friendly warmth of Emiratis

If an Emirati seems unfriendly and unapproachable, I can tell you from experience, all it takes is a little chipping away to find that welcoming interior.

Essential in my self-emiratisation journey was meeting and spending time with Emiratis. To learn more about what Emirati culture is and who Emiratis are, I had, at the very least, to engage with my fellow citizens. I thought, as an Emirati, this would be an easy task. But what I thought was a seemingly easy feat was anything but.

The first hurdle I encountered was the numbers. Of the more than eight million individuals in the country, fewer than 20 per cent are citizens. This meant I was almost twice as likely to meet someone of Latino or Hispanic origin when I lived in California (a common occurrence) than I was to meet Emiratis in the UAE. This issue seemed to be exacerbated when travelling to Dubai, where there seemed to be even fewer locals than in the other emirates. This observation was shared by many expatriates I came across, some of whom had lived in the UAE for more than five years and had still not befriended or even spoken to an Emirati.

The next obstacle was location. Where does one meet Emiratis? As I was still unemployed when I first arrived, work was not an option. And unless I was hired in the public sector where the bulk of Emiratis are employed, their scarcity in the private sector would have been of no help (had I come across a private-sector position). In the streets it seemed easier to spot a local flashing by in a car with tinted windows than strolling along the sidewalk; striking up a friendly conversation in the former case was not a simple proposition.

There are a few locations where Emiratis can be found in greater numbers. The first of these is at the majaalis. Predominantly Emirati, the local numbers are much more favourable. But the problem in this traditional Emirati setting is the high levels of protocol. This, at times, limited the length of engagement you could have with one individual, permitting surface conversations only.

Another Emirati hot spot is the centre of modern Emirati social life: the ubiquitous shopping mall. It was here I observed Emiratis strolling the most. Separate local groups of young men and women and families can be found enjoying the sprawling spaces offered by these climate-controlled modern villages, which offer food, drink, shelter from the elements, entertainment and consumerism to the heart's content.

It was in this more sociable setting that I thought it best for an inside-outsider like myself to break the air-conditioned ice. But once again, I found it difficult to approach my people. Once again, my favourable odds were lessened, as families and females are off-limits to a lone wolf such as myself. So this left the male side.

I quickly noticed that this group, without fail, travel in packs, making the task of approaching much more intimidating. But the numbers are not the only issue. Emiratis, in general, seem unapproachable. They appear to put an invisible but perceivable defensive barrier, which did not seem to break easily. This was most apparent when I wore western dress - the wall seemed to thicken. The guard softened slightly when I wore a kandura, which allowed for a formal exchange of greetings, but still did not seem to disappear entirely.

After a few of these encounters, with even fewer exceptions I found myself stereotyping my fellow citizens in a negative light. I began to withdraw from my efforts as I convinced myself the struggle was not worth it. Why should I try to approach people who seem unapproachable? If they did not want to engage with me, who was I to try to force them to interact?

The problem with the perception of Emiratis I had adopted was that it was skewed, as I had not made any genuine connection or contact. It had become based on my inability to penetrate the barricade I had associated with all Emiratis and the perception of others who also had not engaged with locals.

This situation was eventually rectified when, through my brothers' friends, I had the opportunity to meet locals in a more naturally connected way. What I witnessed in this new environment shattered my perception of Emiratis. Gone was the aura of aloofness; there was no apparent trace of any previous wall and all that was left was tender and kind. With this simple connection I had to them through my family, they treated me as a member of their own.

As I spent more time within the Emirati circles, I witnessed a genuinely giving and caring culture. I began to realise if I had just put some effort into engaging those numerous Emiratis I dubbed "no-go", I would have made some earlier connections.

So why does this barrier exist? I have yet to pinpoint a reason. Perhaps it is because keeping distance ensures Emiratis and their culture command the respect they give to others and is not subject to ridicule. But one thing I can now be sure of is if an Emirati seems unfriendly, unapproachable and withdrawn, I can tell you from experience, all it takes is a little chipping away to find that friendly, welcoming and engaging interior.

Thamer Al Subaihi is a reporter at The National and a returning Emirati who grew up largely in the US.

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Published: March 28, 2012 04:00 AM


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