Respect: it's the key to understanding Emirati identity

Muslims, Christians, Jews from different backgrounds and countries now find themselves living side by side and working shoulder to shoulder in this country.

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The late Sir David Roberts, the British ambassador to the United Arab Emirates from 1977-81, wrote in a foreword to This Strange Eventful History, the memoirs of another British diplomat, Edward Henderson in 1988: "A diplomat might speak excellent Arabic and have deep experience of the Levant or Egypt or the Maghreb, but he would need at least six months before he could comport himself in a majlis or at an Arab feast."

The UAE has grown out of all recognition since the days of both Roberts and Henderson, but the statement still holds true. Muslims, Christians, Jews from different backgrounds and countries now find themselves living side by side and working shoulder to shoulder in this country. The Emirates have come to symbolise the new globalised era of highly mobile populations and diverse societies. But what is still missing is a depth of understanding between the incomers and the Emirati nationals.

That doesn't mean neither side doesn't want to know and get on with the other; the challenge today - as in Henderson's time - is one of communication and understanding. And the key to understanding Emiratis is to understand the importance of respect: for elders, parents, women - and for others, regardless of differences in nationality or religion. Respect also reveals itself in the two main pillars of the Emirati national community: Islam and culture.

Part of the problem for expatriates in getting to grips with Emirati culture is the division that exists between the world of men and the world of women. Regardless of the huge amount of liberalism that exists here, the two worlds are still remarkably separate. Emirati men are naturally more visible; Emirati women more hidden, more mysterious, which is why outsiders find it difficult to "know" the people they have come to live among.

It is true that women of all ages form their own unions, gathering together for lunches and suppers. Most of the socialising takes place in private houses, making it difficult for expatriates to appreciate how enjoyable these events can be - although glimpses can be had when a group of women meet in a public place. But because Emirati women lead slightly separate lives, that does not mean we are segregated or imprisoned. At university, young Emirati women are frequently taught by Western professors - male and female - though taking care that the relationship stays within respectful borders. At work, the interaction with female Westerners is more obvious. Telephone numbers are exchanged, invitations to lunches and weddings shared, and friendships born. But between female nationals and male expatriates, the relationship is dominated by the necessity for respect, with interaction and conversation restricted to work matters.

To Emiratis, this all seems very natural and easy to understand; these are the protocols of our Islamic society that we are raised upon. However, I am sure many expatriates do not understand why men rub noses and women warmly greet when we meet. Or why we always find it easier to be in a room full of women. Around the streets of the UAE it is noticeable that many car windows are tinted black, some so dark that it is a wonder the driver can see out. This, too, is symptomatic of the desire for privacy. Whether a man is driving his mother, wife, sister, or daughter, or whether a group of women are travelling together, nobody wants to feel they are being watched by strangers.

Women in our world are treated with great care and sensitivity. Although some families prevent their daughters from driving, it is not intended to deprive them of their rights but usually a sign that the father feels his daughter should be treated as a princess, and that other people should drive her. The father feels that she should not have to deal with a car or even - God-forbid - be involved in an accident. As a result she is assigned a trusted driver to take her wherever she needs to be, and if not a driver, her brother has to do the job.

There is a feeling among foreigners that Emirati girls like to stick together and are not interested in being friends with other nationalities. This is not true. We are very open to new relations with women from all over the world. However, it has to be appreciated that ours is still very much a tribal society and young girls are mostly encouraged to be friends with their female cousins, or with other friends of the family, and that reduces the chances for friendships with other people.

Emirati society has had to make huge adaptations to an entirely new world in a very short time. The roles of Emirati women are now dramatically different. The new generation has to face the challenge of maintaining the principles of their traditional identity while continuing to adapt to the demands of modernity.

Bushra Alkaff al Hahshemi is a fourth year student at Zayed University. and winner of the Anasy documentary competition, Sheikh Zayed category