Rising demand for Arabic speakers is about more than the UAE job market

Employers recognise the language's economic value, but promoting it in schools and at home creates a vibrant bilingualism

English is a useful communication tool for the UAE's different nationalities, but its ubiquity has led to suggestions it is rivalling the special place of Arabic. Getty
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News this week that businesses in the UAE increasingly want to recruit Arabic speakers will reassure many who have harboured persistent concerns about the language’s prominence, not only in the workplace but in schools and homes as well.

Uncertainty about Arabic’s place in a professional world where the lingua franca of business, education and the internet is often English has been around for some years. In the UAE, and other multicultural hubs like Singapore, English functions as a useful and ubiquitous means of daily communication among its many resident nationalities, young and old alike, but has led to suggestions it is rivalling the special place of the native language.

Even some younger Arabs are reported to lack fluency in their mother tongue, having been immersed in a world of English at school and on the net.

Earlier this year, this sense of concern was amplified when many diplomats, teachers and British residents of the Emirates expressed dismay about the scaling back of BBC Arabic. The radio station was established in 1938 but went off air in January as part of a cost-cutting plan, frustrating many Arabic speakers as well as lovers and learners of the language.

Now, however, demand for Arabic as a workplace skill – particularly in human resources – is rising thanks to booming GCC economies, and the expansion of UAE-based companies into neighbouring countries. This has been partly ascribed to the economic bounce from the successful handling of the pandemic, Expo 2020 in Dubai, the World Cup in Qatar, ambitious economic plans in Saudi Arabia, Gulf economic diversification and an Emiratisation drive that is rapidly gathering pace. The departure of many foreign employees after the Covid-19 pandemic has also left gaps to be filled, and regional companies in particular have been quick to see the value in recruiting staff who can converse with clients, colleagues and customers in Arabic.

As a vote of confidence in Arabic, this demand is hard to beat. Businesses need to be profitable and there is little room for sentiment, so the market’s recognition of Arabic as an important contributor to employability is notable. But maintaining this trend will require some work. The salaries on offer for jobs requiring Arabic must be competitive, and employers will want a large pool of Arabic-speaking talent to recruit from, now and in the future. This requires investment in Arabic-language education and training.

The UAE has already been taking steps to ensure the prominence of Arabic, not only in cultural terms but as a tool for the workplace. In May it was reported that the authorities in Abu Dhabi would rank private schools on their efforts to encourage the use of Arabic among Emirati pupils. In June last year, Sheikh Dr Sultan bin Muhammad Al Qasimi, Ruler of Sharjah, urged teachers to promote Arabic in schools, focusing on the need to develop new teaching methods for the language. In 2019, the Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Global Initiatives launched Arabic lessons on an e-learning platform called Madrasa, through which 50 million students from kindergarten to grade 12 would have access to free online Arabic-language educational content.

Given these kind of measures, it is perhaps no surprise that the UAE is the focal point for Arabic’s renewed place in the workplace. A 2020 study in the academic journal World Englishes found that “the fact that English and Arabic are used at high levels of proficiency by both Emiratis and non-Emiratis points to the development of a bilingual society, much in the same way as in Singapore”. This bilingualism, if carefully natured and encouraged with a sense of partnership with the country’s unique heritage and traditions, will be a formidable tool for many people in the labour market, now and in the future. Those fluent in Arabic, it seems, will have the final word.

Published: July 13, 2023, 3:00 AM