Despite anxiety, UAE can take pride in migration policy

The simple numbers make some Emiratis anxious about the country's immigration policy. But in fact this is working out very well for the country.

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Immigration is a sensitive topic for any country. It is no easy task to manage the growing expectations of citizens while balancing the social and economic developments of a country that relies on foreigners. This is especially true for the United Arab Emirates.

There are two types of people who move to the UAE for work. First are those who come in search of career advancement or financial security. These individuals come because of economic and social hardship in their own countries; the Emirates has seen an influx of people from a variety of backgrounds looking to move here due to lack of opportunities at home.

Then there are people who are sought out by key industries - oil and gas, nuclear or aviation, for instance - to bring their intellectual property and best practices to the UAE to help this country recreate success locally. Due to the nature and speed of development in the UAE, especially in knowledge-intensive sectors, there is a high demand for top talent which, due to the relative youth of the UAE, is still not available organically.

So how are these migration trends affecting the job market? And how does immigration effect change on Emirati culture? Here is where things get interesting.

A recent report in which young Emiratis were asked their thoughts on migration to the UAE found several different trends. For instance, one student was quoted as saying that due to migration there were fewer opportunities for soon-to-be graduating students like him.

This perception is understandable, but it is also incorrect.

One can look far and wide and have a hard time finding another nationalisation policy that is as strict as the Emiratisation effort underway in the UAE. In this country today all government and non-government entities must meet quotas for the hiring of Emiratis. Even the private sector must adhere to these quotas, which specify that if a qualified national is willing and able to do the work then he or she must be given priority over foreigners.

That said, with the speed of development in the UAE, there just aren't enough Emiratis to fill every single job in the UAE, which is the reality of the world we live in. Therefore, I think it will be a long time before the job market becomes saturated with qualified Emiratis.

Then the survey highlighted concerns regarding the social dynamics of continued migration. One student was quoted as saying that having so many people migrate to the UAE "is going to bring many problems in the long run".

There is some truth to this worry. When borders open to various cultures, backgrounds or religions, the potential for social tensions does tend to sprout.

That said, I do believe that the UAE has set the benchmark on social stability in the face of enormous socio-economic change in its 40 years as a country. Nearly anyone from around the world can settle comfortably here, fitting in quickly within their own community or in the open arms of their welcoming hosts.

The UAE's current prosperity has come to fruition on the backs of a joint Emirati-expatriate effort that cannot for one minute be ignored. We must never forget that this prosperity far outweighs the minor social grievances felt by a few.

The always-important topic of culture as it relates to migration also needs a mention here. According to the 2012 Arab Youth Survey, roughly eight of 10 young Emiratis say traditional values are still the most important to them (while just one student felt that the negative aspects of multiple cultures coming together exceeded the positives).

There has always been a big concern among some nationals in the UAE that the rapid inflow of foreigners would lead to the dilution of domestic culture due to the demographic imbalance. As a minority in our own country one can easily understand why this would be of the utmost concern at all levels of society.

Which is why culture is an area the governments have taken a proactive approach on preserving, through the setting up of various government entities to ensure culture and heritage are protected and promoted, not just among the youth but to our international counterparts as a form of education in our traditions.

It is the responsibility of every Emirati in the UAE and abroad to ensure that his or her culture and heritage are preserved. Culture is not lost due to international pressures or by being outnumbered, but rather it is lost when people fail to take the responsibility to pick it up and ensure its long-term survival.

In the latest Arab Youth Survey, the UAE, due to its economic prosperity and social stability, was ranked the number one place that youth around the region would like to live.

This is a direct result of the great gains the UAE has made in just four decades, and it is the UAE's immigration policy and position as a land of opportunity that promotes talent moving to these shores. Emiratis should continue to embrace everything their diverse community has to offer; it has made the UAE what it is today.

And to those who are concerned about what the future holds due to a relatively liberal immigration policy, stop worrying. Judging by the feedback from Arab youth in the recent 2012 survey, the UAE's success is going to continue for many years to come.

Khalid Al Ameri is a social columnist and blogger based in Abu Dhabi

On Twitter: @KhalidAlAmeri